Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

A Harvard University student explains how evidence changed her mind about God

Harvard University student discovers apologetics

Harvard University student discovers apologetics

Here’s a must-read article  about the effectiveness of apologetics on college campuses in Christianity Today.

Excerpt:

I don’t know when I first became a skeptic. It must have been around age 4, when my mother found me arguing with another child at a birthday party: “But how do you know what the Bible says is true?” By age 11, my atheism was so widely known in my middle school that a Christian boy threatened to come to my house and “shoot all the atheists.” My Christian friends in high school avoided talking to me about religion because they anticipated that I would tear down their poorly constructed arguments. And I did.

As I set off in 2008 to begin my freshman year studying government at Harvard (whose motto is Veritas, “Truth”), I could never have expected the change that awaited me.

It was a brisk November when I met John Joseph Porter. Our conversations initially revolved around conservative politics, but soon gravitated toward religion. He wrote an essay for the Ichthus, Harvard’s Christian journal, defending God’s existence. I critiqued it. On campus, we’d argue into the wee hours; when apart, we’d take our arguments to e-mail. Never before had I met a Christian who could respond to my most basic philosophical questions: How does one understand the Bible’s contradictions? Could an omnipotent God make a stone he could not lift? What about the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God declared it so, or does God merely identify the good? To someone like me, with no Christian background, resorting to an answer like “It takes faith” could only be intellectual cowardice. Joseph didn’t do that.

And he did something else: He prodded me on how inconsistent I was as an atheist who nonetheless believed in right and wrong as objective, universal categories. Defenseless, I decided to take a seminar on meta-ethics. After all, atheists had been developing ethical systems for 200-some years. In what I now see as providential, my atheist professor assigned a paper by C. S. Lewis that resolved the Euthyphro dilemma, declaring, “God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.”

Joseph also pushed me on the origins of the universe. I had always believed in the Big Bang. But I was blissfully unaware that the man who first proposed it, Georges Lemaître, was a Catholic priest. And I’d happily ignored the rabbit trail of a problem of what caused the Big Bang, and what caused that cause, and so on.

By Valentine’s Day, I began to believe in God. There was no intellectual shame in being a deist, after all, as I joined the respectable ranks of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers.

I wouldn’t stay a deist for long. A Catholic friend gave me J. Budziszewski’s book Ask Me Anything, which included the Christian teaching that “love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.” This theme—of love as sacrifice for true good—struck me. The Cross no longer seemed a grotesque symbol of divine sadism, but a remarkable act of love. And Christianity began to look less strangely mythical and more cosmically beautiful.

Now, I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for saying this, but I think that if you are a Christian and you are in a secular university, then you really need to have put in the effort to study the areas of science, history and philosophy that are relevant to the Christian faith. This is regardless of your personal abilities or field of study. We must all make an effort regardless of how comfortable we are with things that are hard for us to learn.

Granted, most people today are not interested in truth, because we just have this cultural preoccupation with having fun and feeling good and doing whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. Most atheists I’ve met are like that, but some are more honest, open-minded, and they just have never encountered any good reasons or evidence to think that God exists and that Jesus is anything other than a man. There are a lot of atheists like that who are just waiting to hear some decent evidence. Our job is to prepare for them and then engage them, if they are willing to be engaged.

I think that definition of love she cited – self-sacrifice for the true good of another person – is important. I don’t think that ordinary Christians like you or me spends time on apologetics because we “like” it. I know lots of Christians who are in tough, expensive academic programs trying to get the skills they need to defend truth in areas that matter. They do this because they know that there are people out there who are interested in truth, and who are willing to re-prioritize their lives if the truth is made clear to them. We need to be willing to serve God by doing hard things that work.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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William Lane Craig debates James Crossley: Did Jesus rise from the dead?

This is my favorite debate on the resurrection.

You can watch the debate here:

The MP3 file can be obtained from Apologetics 315.

There is not much snark in this summary, because Crossley is a solid scholar, and very fair with the evidence. He’s also done debates with Richard Bauckham and Michael Bird. You have to respect him for getting out there and defending his views in public.

SUMMARY

William Lane Craig’s opening speech

Two contentions:

  • There are four minimal facts that are accepted by most historians
  • The best explanation of the four minimal facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead

Contention 1 of 2:

Fact 1: The burial

  • The burial is multiply attested
    • The burial is based on the early source material that Mark used for his gospel
    • Scholars date this Markan source to within 10 years of the crucifixion
    • The burial is also in the early passage in 1 Cor 15:3-8
    • So you have 5 sources, some of which are very early
  • The burial is credited to a member of the Sanhedrin
    • the burial is probable because shows an enemy of the church doing right
    • this makes it unlikely to to be an invention

Fact 2: The empty tomb

  • The burial story supports the empty tomb
    • the site of Jesus’ grave was known
    • the disciples could not proclaim a resurrection if the body were still in it
    • the antagonists to the early Christians could have produced the body
  • The empty tomb is multiple attested
    • it’s mentioned explicitly in Mark
    • it’s in the separate sources used by Matthew and John
    • it’s in the early sermons documented in Acts
    • it’s implied by 1 Cor 15:3-8, because resurrection requires that the body is missing
  • The empty tomb was discovered by women
    • the testimony of women of women was not normally allowed in courts of law
    • if this story was being made up, they would have chosen male disciples
  • The empty tomb discover lacks legendary embellishment
    • there is no theological or apologetical reflection on the meaning of the tomb
  • The early Jewish response implies that the tomb was empty
    • the response was that the disciples stole the body
    • that requires that the tomb was found empty

Fact 3: The appearances to individuals and groups, some of the them hostile

  • The list of appearances is in 1 Cor 15:3-8
    • this material is extremely early, withing 1-3 years after the cross
    • James, the brother of Jesus, was not a believer when he got his appearance
    • Paul was hostile to the early church when he got his appearance
  • Specific appearances are multiply attested
    • Peter: attested by Luke and Paul
    • The twelve: attested by Luke, John and Paul
    • The women: attested by Matthew and John

Fact 4: The early belief in the resurrection emerged in a hostile environment

  • There was no background belief in a dying Messiah
  • There was no background belief in a single person resurrecting before the general resurrection of all of the righteous at the end of the age
  • The disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
  • The resurrection is the best explanation for the transformation of the disciples from frightened to reckless of death

Contention 2 of 2:

  • The resurrection is the best explanation because it passes C.B. McCullough’s six tests for historical explanations
  • None of the naturalistic explanations accounts for the minimal facts as well as the resurrection

James Crossley’s opening speech

Appeals to the majority of scholars doesn’t prove anything

  • the majority of people in the west are Christians so of course there are a majority of scholars that support the resurrection
  • there are Christian schools where denial of the resurrection can result in termination

The best early sources (1 Cor 15:3-8 and Mark) are not that good

1 Cor 15:3-8 doesn’t support the empty tomb

  • verse 4 probably does imply a bodily resurrection
  • the passage does have eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus
  • but there are no eyewitnesses to the empty tomb in this source
  • appearances occur in other cultures in different times and places
  • Jesus viewed himself as a martyr
  • his followers may have had hallucinations

Mark 16:1-8

  • Mark is dated to the late 30s and early 40s
  • The women who discover the tomb tell no one about the empty tomb

The gospels show signs of having things added to them

  • Jewish story telling practices allowed the teller to make things up to enhance their hero
  • one example of this would be the story of the earthquake and the people coming out of their graves
  • that story isn’t in Mark, nor any external sources like Josephus
  • if there really was a mass resurrection, where are these people today?
  • so this passage in Matthew clearly shows that at least some parts of the New Testament could involve
  • what about the contradiction between the women tell NO ONE and yet other people show up at the empty tomb
  • the story about Jesus commissioning the early church to evangelize Gentiles was probably added
  • there are also discrepancies in the timing of events and appearances
  • why are there explicit statements of high Christology in John, but not in the earlier sources?

William Lane Craig’s first rebuttal

Crossley’s response to the burial: he accepts it

Crossley’s response to the empty tomb: he thinks it was made up

  • rabbinical stories are not comparable to the gospel accounts
  • the rabbinical stories are just anecdotal creative story-telling
  • the gospels are ancient biographies – the genre is completely different
  • the rabbinic miracle stories are recorded much later than the gospels
  • the rabbi’s legal and moral ideas were written down right away
  • the miracle stories were written down a century or two later
  • in contrast, the miracle stories about Jesus are in the earliest sources, like Mark
  • the rabbinical stories are intended as entertainment, not history
  • the gospels are intended as biography
  • just because there are some legendary/apocalyptic elements in Matthew, it doesn’t undermine things like the crucfixion that are historically accurate

Crossley’s response to the evidence for the empty tomb:

  • no response to the burial
  • the empty tomb cannot be made up, it was implied by Paul early on
  • the women wouldn’t have said nothing forever – they eventually talked after they arrived to where the disciples were
  • no response to the lack of embellishment
  • no response to the early Jewish polemic

Crossley’s response to the appearances

  • he agrees that the first followers of Jesus had experiences where they thought Jesus was still alive

Crossley’s response to the early belief in the bodily resurrection:

  • no response about how this belief in a resurrection could have emerged in the absence of background belief in the death of the Messiah and the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the age

What about Crossley’s hallucination theory?

  • Crossley says that the followers of Jesus had visions, and they interpreted these visions against the story of the Maccabean martyrs who looked forward to their own resurrections
  • but the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t account for the empty tomb
  • and the Maccabean martyrs were not expecting the resurrection of one man, and certainly not the Messiah – so that story doesn’t provide the right background belief for a hallucination of a single resurrected person prior to the end of the age
  • if the appearances were non-physical, the disciples would not have applied the word resurrection – it would just have been a vision
  • the visions could easily be reconciled with the idea that somehow God was pleased with Jesus and that he had some glorified/vindicated non-corporeal existence – but not resurrection
  • not only that, the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t even explain the visions, because there were visions to groups, to skeptics and to enemies in several places

What about the argument that only Christians accept the resurrection?

  • it’s an ad hominem attack that avoids the arguments

James Crossley’s first rebuttal

Regarding the burial:

  • I could be persuaded of that the burial account is accurate

Regarding the non-expectation of a suffering/dying Messiah:

  • Jesus thought he was going to die
  • this thinking he was going to die overturned all previous Messianic expectations that the Messiah wouldn’t suffer or die
  • the early Jews could easily reconcile the idea of a suffering, dead man killed by the Romans with the power of the all-powerful Messiah who supposed to reign forever
  • no actually bodily resurrection would have to happen to get them to continue to identify an executed corpse with the role of Messiah

Regarding the belief in the bodily resurrection:

  • it would be natural for Jews, who believed in a general resurrection of all the rigtheous dead at the end of the age, to interpret a non-physical vision of one man after he died as a bodily resurrection, even though no Jew had ever considered the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection before Jesus

Regarding the testimony of the women:

  • Just because women were not able to testify in courts of law (unless there were no male witnesses), the early church might still invent a story where the women are the first witnesses
  • first, the disciples had fled the scene, so only the women were left
  • and it would have been a good idea for the early church to invent women as the first witnesses – the fact that they could not testify in court makes them ideal witnesses and very persuasive
  • also, it’s a good idea to invent women as witnesses, because the Romans had a rule that said that they never killed women, so they wouldn’t have killed these women – Romans only ever kill men
  • in any case, the first witness to the empty tomb is angel, so as long as people could talk to the angel as being the first witness, that’s the best story to invent

Regarding the consensus of Christian scholars:

  • I am not saying that Craig’s facts are wrong, just that appealing to consensus is not legitimate
  • he has to appeal to the evidence, not the consensus

Regarding my naturalistic bias:

  • I don’t know or care if naturalism is true, let’s look at the evidence

Regarding the genre of the gospels:

  • the creative story-telling is common in all genres, it’s not a genre in itself
  • stuff about Roman emperors also has creative story-telling

Regarding the legendary nature of the empty tomb in Mark:

  • First, Christians interpreted the visions as a bodily resurrection
  • Second, they invented the story of the empty tomb to go with that interpretation
  • Third, they died for their invention

William Lane Craig’s second rebuttal

The burial:

  • Bill’s case doesn’t need to know the specifics of the burial, only that the location was known
  • the location is important because it supports the empty tomb
  • to proclaim a resurrection, the tomb would have to be empty
  • a tomb with a known location is easier to check

The empty tomb:

  • creative story telling was common in Judaism: retelling OT stories (midrash), romances/novels, rabbinical anecdotes
  • but the gospels are none of these genres – the gospels are ancient biographies
  • Craig also gave five arguments as to why the tomb was empty
  • the burial story supports the empty tomb
  • there is multiple independent attestation, then it cannot be a creative fiction invented in Mark alone
  • the witnesses were in Jerusalem, so they were in a position to know
  • regarding the women, even though Jesus respected the women, their testimony would not be convincing to others, so why invent a story where they are the witnesses
  • the male disciples did not flee the scene, for example, Peter was there to deny Jesus three times
  • if the story is made up, who cares what the male disciples did, just invent them on the scene anyway
  • the angel is not authoritative, because the angel cannot be questioned, but the women can be questioned
  • there was no response on the lack of embellishment
  • there was no response to the earliest Jewish response implying that the tomb was empty

The appearances:

  • we agree on the appearances

The early belief in the resurrection:

  • he says that Jesus predicted his own death
  • yes, but that would only cause people to think that he was a martyr, not that he was the messiah – something else is needed for them to keep their believe that he was the Messiah even after he died, because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die
  • and of course, there was no expectation of a single person rising from the dead before the general resurrection, and certainly not the Messiah

The consensus of scholars:

  • Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide accept these minimal facts like the empty tomb, it’s not just Christian scholars

Against Crossley’s hallucination hypothesis:

  • it doesn’t explain the empty the tomb
  • it doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection
  • hallucinations would only lead to the idea that God had exalted/glorified Jesus, not that he was bodily raised from the dead
  • the hallucination theory cannot accommodate all of the different kinds of appearances; individual, group, skeptic, enemy, etc.

The pre-supposition of naturalism:

  • if Crossley is not committed to naturalism, then he should be open to the minimal facts and to the best explanation of those facts
  • the hallucination hypothesis has too many problems
  • the resurrection hypothesis explains everything, and well

James Crossley’s second rebuttal

Religious pluralism:

  • well, there are lots of other religious books
  • those other religious books have late sources, and are filled with legends and myths, and no eyewitness testimony
  • so why should we trust 1 Cor 15 and the early source for Mark and the other early eyewitness testimony in the New Testament?
  • if other religious books can be rejected for historical reasons, then surely the New Testament can be rejected for historical reasons

Genre:

  • the genre of ancient biography can incorporate and commonly incorporates invented legendaryt story-telling
  • this is common in Roman, Greek and Jewish literature and everyone accepts that

Empty tomb: multiple attestation

  • ok, so maybe the empty tomb is multiply attested, but that just gets back to a belief, not to a fact
  • multiple attestation is not the only criteria, and Craig needs to use the other criteria to make his case stronger

Empty tomb: invented

  • if there is a belief in the resurrection caused by the visions, then the empty tomb would have to be invented
  • why aren’t there more reliable stories of people visiting the empty tomb in more sources?

Empty tomb: role of the women

  • there are women who have an important role in the Bible, like Judith and Esther
  • Mark’s passage may have used women who then kept silent in order to explain why no one knew where the empty tomb was
  • if the fleeing of the men is plausible to explain the women, then why not use that? why appeal to the supernatural?
  • we should prefer any explanation that is naturalistic even if it is not as good as the supernatural explanation at explaining everything

Empty tomb: embellishment

  • well there is an angel there, that’s an embellishment
  • anyway, when you say there is no embellishment, what are you comparing it to that makes you say that?

Appearances: anthropology

  • I’ve read anthropology literature that has some cases where people have hallucinations as groups

Appearances: theology

  • the hallucinations would not be interpreted against the background theological beliefs that ruled out the resurrection of one man before then general resurrection of all the righteous dead
  • these hallucinations could have been so compelling that they made the earliest Christians, and skeptics like James, and enemies like the Pharisee Paul abandon all of their previous background beliefs, proclaim the new doctrine of a crucified and resurrected Messiah which no one had ever expected, and then gone on to die for that belief
  • the hallucinations could have changed all of their theology and reversed all of their beliefs about the what the word resurrection meant

William Lane Craig’s conclusion

Supernaturalism:

  • None of the four facts are supernatural, they are natural, and ascertained by historians using normal historical methods
  • the supernatural part only comes in after we decide on the facts when we are deciding which explanation is the best
  • a tomb being found empty is not a miraculous fact

Genre:

  • the gospels are not analagous to these rabbinical stories, the purpose and dating is different

Empty tomb:

  • what multiple attestation shows is that it was not made-up by Mark
  • and the argument was augmented with other criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment and the criterion of dissimilarity
  • Judith and Esther are very rare exceptions, normally women were not viewed as reliable witnesses
  • if the story was invented, whatever purpose the inventors had would have been better served by inventing male witnesses
  • Craig grants that the angel may be an embellishment for the sake of argument, but there are no other embellishments
  • the real embellishments occur in forged gnostic gospels in the second and third centuries, where there are theological motifs added to the bare fact of the empty tomb (e.g. – the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter)
  • he had no response to the earliest jewish response which implied an empty tomb

Belief in the resurrection:

  • there was no way for Jewish people to interpret an appearance as a bodily resurrection before the end of the world, they did not expect that
  • they could have imagined exaltation, but not a bodily resurrection

James Crossley’s conclusion

Supernatural explanation:

  • as long as there is any other other possible naturalistic explanation, we should prefer that, no matter how unlikely

Creative stories:

  • some of these creative stories appear within the lifetimes of the people connected to the events (none mentioned)

Embellishment:

  • you should compare to earlier stories when looking for embellishments, not later
  • and we don’t have any earlier sources, so we just don’t know the extent of the embellishment

Jewish response:

  • they probably just heard about the empty tomb, and didn’t check on it, then invented the stole-the-body explanation without ever checking to see if the tomb was empty or not

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Don Johnson: six reasons why people reject Christianity

Here’s a post on practical evangelism by Christian scholar Don Johnson.

His list of reasons why people often reject Christianity:

  1. Christians behaving badly
  2. Disappointment with God
  3. Weak or absent father
  4. Social pressure
  5. Cost of discipleship
  6. Immorality (especially sexual immorality)

And here’s the detail on #6:

Of all the motivations and reasons for skepticism that I encounter, immorality is easily the most common. In particular, sexual sin seems to be the largest single factor driving disbelief in our culture. Brant Hanson calls sex “The Big But” because he so often hears this from unbelievers: “’I like Jesus, BUT…’ and the ‘but’ is usually followed, one way or the other, with an objection about the Bible and… sex. People think something’s deeply messed-up with a belief system that says two consenting, unmarried adults should refrain from sex.” In other words, people simply do not want to follow the Christian teaching that sexual intercourse should take place only between and man and woman who are married, so they throw the whole religion out.

The easiest way to justify sin is to deny that there is a creator to provide reality with a nature, thereby denying that there is any inherent order and purpose in the universe.

Aldous Huxley admitted that this is a common reason for skepticism:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless. …

For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was …liberation from … a certain system of morality.  We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom…. There was one admirably simple method in our political and erotic revolt: We could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. Similar tactics had been adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reasons. (Ends and Means, 270-273)

Indeed, similar tactics have been used extensively up to the present day. If you are looking for two great resources that document the extent to which the work of the world’s “great” atheistic thinkers has been “calculated to justify or minimize the shame of their own debauchery,” (Spiegel, 72) I recommend Intellectuals by Paul Johnson and Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior by E. Michael Jones. The bottom line is that these skeptical scholars didn’t reach their conclusions by following the evidence where it led. They didn’t “discover” that the world was meaningless and then proceed to live accordingly. They lived sinful lives (usually involving some type of sexual deviancy) and then produced theories that justified their actions.

It’s important to understand that an atheist is not identical to a Christian, except not religious. There is something else going on in their minds when they reject very obvious evidences like the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability arguments, etc. The something else that is going on is hinted at when you look at atheist attitudes to abortion. According to a recent survey of atheists, 97% of them were pro-abortion!

What kind of person likes abortion? The kind of person who wants to be sexually active with no consequences, even if it means taking someone else’s life. The desire to do as they please and retreat from obligations to others is the key. Now dispensing with God and his obligations is not an unreasonable view if there is no evidence for God, but it does provide a motive for people to not look for that evidence if happiness is their main goal. When I discuss these issues with atheists, I find that no work has been done to read anything. Not even debates, where there are two sides. They don’t want to hear the case for Christian theism, and they work hard to avoid stumbling across it by accident, too.

God and the cosmic authority problem

Tough Questions Answered has a quote from Christian philosopher Paul Moser that I think is relevant:

It would be a strange, defective God who didn’t pose a serious cosmic authority problem for humans.  Part of the status of being God, after all, is that God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans.  Since we humans aren’t God, the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly selfish ways.

So we’re not dealing with unbiased truth-seekers here. The goal might not always be sex, but let’s be honest. Who wants to have to spend time reading the Bible, praying, going to church and reading thick books by Stephen C. Meyer, Michael Licona and Hugh Ross so that we can answer questions? No one. Who wants to give up premarital sex so that we can create a stable marriage for children so they can grow up in a safe place where knowing God is natural and easy? No one. We just don’t want to have to do stuff for God, even if it’s good stuff. We don’t want to have build a life that is a testament to God’s existence and character, especially if it means that other people will think that we are weird and maybe even a bit mean. We want to do what we want to do instead, and be liked by other people.

That’s the real challenge of Christianity: setting aside what you wanted to do, and letting God be your customer, instead. You’d be surprised how many Christians aren’t comfortable with the idea of serving God and being viewed in a bad way by non-Christians. They aren’t OK with the self-sacrifice, and they are really not OK with the social disapproval. It’s hard to be chaste, and to be known to be chaste by your peers, for example. Much easier to just give in and do what everyone else is doing.

Let’s illustrate with C.S. Lewis

And here’s a relevant quote from C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” to illustrate:

You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as his felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For his ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve…. Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish…. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand…. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

— Uncle Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters

I’m not a big fan of Lewis, but I think he is onto something there. That’s really what the Christian life is like, and no wonder more people don’t choose it. Who wants to do your duty for God, as part of a relationship with him, in a universe that seems so unfair? It’s a tall order, and most people prefer to do their own thing instead of building something nice for God with their lives.

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A popular reason why people leave Christianity: disappointment with God

Part 2 of a brilliant series by Bradley Wright. This time he explains how people leave Christianity because they expect God to meet their needs and he doesn’t.

Excerpt:

In a study of religious deconversion, we analyzed 50 on-line testimonies posted by former Christians, and in these testimonies we found four general explanations for deconversion. The first explanation, which I wrote about last week, regarded intellectual and theological concerns about the Christian faith. The second, which I elaborate here, regards a failed relationship with God. Almost half (22 of 50) of the writers expressed sentiments that in some way God had failed them by His not doing what they thought He should.

God’s perceived failure took various forms, most of which fall under the general heading of “unanswered prayers.”

One way that people felt that God had failed them happened when He did not respond to requests for help during difficult times. A young man raised in a Baptist church epitomized this feeling of failure when he wrote about God not answering his prayers about family difficulties. He wrote: “The first time I questioned the faith was when my grandmother shriveled up in front of me for 6 month’s due to cancer. I was 13 & my mother & father [were] getting a divorce. My father told me I should have been aborted. I prayed to God but nothing fails like prayers.”

So you can see here where people have this expectation that it is God’s job to give them good health. But is that anywhere in the Bible? Is it God’s job to make us healthy so that we can have a happy life, even if we are busy spending that happy life ignoring him and not knowing his character. When you ask a serious Christian what it is like to be a Christian, we will tell you that what God is about is NOT making us healthy or happy, but instead giving us time and peace to study him, to make plans to serve him, to execute those plans, and to have (sometimes unhappy) experiences that cause our sympathies to change as we feel what God feels. In short, life is about getting closer to him, and suffering and sickness is one of the tools God uses in order to get us to know him as he is and to participate in the relationship.

Likewise, a woman raised in a Methodist household described her step-father as “cruel and abusive” to her, and she could not understand why “if God loves me, why won’t he protect me instead of letting this happen to me?”

I think the reason why God allows suffering like this is to create people who take his rules about sexual morality seriously. When I was growing up I had front-row seats to the divorces of many of my friends. I remember vividly talking to children who cried to me about how they felt when their mothers invited new men into the house after the divorce. Pain and suffering like this is a reminder to us that the moral law is real, that God expects us to follow it in order to prevent harm. One of the reasons why I am chaste is because I listen to the stories of men whose girlfriends aborted their babies, the stories of women who cohabitated and then were betrayed, the stories of the children of divorces. And from this I learn that morality is real and it matters.

In a variation of this theme, some deconverts lamented God’s inactivity amidst spiritual difficulties. A man in his forties, a former elder at a charismatic church, wrote: “In my own life, no matter how much I submitted to ‘God’ and prayed in faith, ‘sin’ never seemed to leave me. Well, what’s the point of being ‘saved’ if you aren’t delivered from ‘sin’?”

This is why accurate theology matters. No serious Christian thinks that you stop sinning after you become a Christian, and no serious Christian thinks that prayer alone is a solution to sin. To stop sinning, you need to engage more than the spirit, you need to engage the mind. Most people want to spiritualize things because prayer is easier than study. But if you want to stop sinning, the best way is a combination of prayer and study. If you want to stop premarital sex, study how premarital sex affects STD infection, risk of divorce, future marital stability, oxytocin, quality of marriage, and so on. Study the risks of divorce. That’s how you stop sinning. Some people want to dumb Christianity down to the level of superstition then they complain that it doesn’t work. But Christianity is better when you learn more and work harder.

A former Southern Baptist described the various good things that God failed to give him: “God promises me a lot in the bible and he’s not come through. Ask and it shall be given. Follow me and I will bless you. I promise you life and promise abundance. Man should not be alone. I have a plan for you. Give tithe and I will reward you. All broken promises. This god lacks clarification. This god lacks faith in me. He wants my faith. I want his too.”

Do you know what I expect from God after reading the Bible? I expect what Jesus got: pain and suffering during obedience. What kind of simpleton reads the Bible and thinks that it is about getting goodies from God? That is NOWHERE in the Bible. It’s projecting Santa Claus onto God and that isn’t going to work – God has other plans for us, and those plans involve work and pain. People become Christians because they want to be like Jesus, and they understand that Jesus was not having fun. He was doing a job, and he wasn’t happy or appreciated.

Other writers took a different approach to God’s failures. They too sought God’s help, but when they did not receive it, they simply concluded that God did not exist. A former member of an Assemblies of God church explicitly linked unanswered prayers and the existence of God: “How many humble and totally selfless prayers offered up to and ignored by the imaginary skydaddy does it take for the average person to finally throw in the towel and say [God doesn’t exist]!!!!” His answer: “Too damn many.”

It’s so strange to me that people think that the best way to see God interfere is to pray. The way I see God working in my life is when I go home and listen to some debate about the problem of evil, and then the next day some atheist asks me out to lunch to talk about why God allows evil. Maybe instead of doing easy things, we should actually invest in our relationship with God and then see if he responds by giving us work to do. Maybe a relationship with God is about serving him, and the joy is about seeing him reward those efforts by working with us and through us. Maybe God has more for us than just entertainment.

Still others sought a tangible sign of God’s presence. A former Pentecostal exclaimed: “There were many nights while in bed I would ask God to show me the truth, or give me some type of sign to show that he or she existed. These prayers would never be answered. So I would just go on with my life having doubts.” Likewise, a former Baptist missionary wrote: “I’ve begged God to show himself to me and put an end to my inner torture. So far it hasn’t happened and the only thing I know for sure is that I have unanswered questions.”

I think this paragraph is interesting, since I consider things like church, praying and singing hymns to be less practical when compared with practical and difficult things like chastity, apologetics, charity, studying hard things, getting a good job, committing to caring for others who have special needs, etc. If you want to feel the presence of God, then do the right thing and take the punishment for doing it. That’s what Christianity is really about.

The example of Dan Barker

I’ve actually written about this before in the context of Dan Barker, a charismatic fundamentalist praise hymn singer and writer who expected God to validate all of his irresponsible ministry decisions. Eventually, he fell away from the church because he had this ludicrous Santa Claus caricature of God that didn’t match reality. Dan Barker is the complete opposite of everything I consider a manly Christian to be. He is the polar opposite of what I recommend to men when I recommend that they study math, science, engineering and technology, avoid music, singing and dancing, and prefer apologetics and conservative politics over speaking in tongues and apocalyptic fiction. This man, when he was a “Christian”, was the complete opposite of the WK Christian man model. Men should be practical.

I think that Christians should protect themselves from the Dan Barker outcome by being aware of how emotional experiences and praise hymns warp your view of God. God is a person, and he has a goal for you – to know him. To achieve that goal, it may not be effective to just give you everything you want. It may be the case that God has to allow you to experience some suffering, to form your character and to bring your goals in line with his character. Children have to grow up, and shielding them from pain and responsibility doesn’t allow them to grow up.

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What got me started on apologetics? William Lane Craig debate transcripts

To have informed views, listen to both sides

To have informed views, you should listen to both sides

Yes, William Lane Craig debate transcripts. In fact, I still read them from time to time to keep up my skills.

Here’s one of my favorites, the Craig-Nielsen debate on grounding morality without God

Summary:

THE CRAIG-NIELSEN DEBATE: GOD, MORALITY, AND EVIL
William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen
with annotations by William Lane Craig
February 1991, University of Western Ontario

Best part:

Finally, he raises the issue of immortality and says, “Death doesn’t undermine moral values. In fact, things that we value become all the more precious.” Well, in one sense he’s right. It’s the absence of God that undermines the objectivity of moral values, not death. But let’s suppose that there are objective moral values. What would be undermined by the lack of immortality? I think two things.

First, I think there would be no reason to adopt the moral point of view. Since you’re going to die, everyone ends up the same. It doesn’t make any difference whether you live as a Hitler or a Mother Teresa. There is no relationship between your moral living and your ultimate fate. And so in that sense, death undermines the reason for adopting the moral point of view rather that just being an egoist and living for self.

Second, there’s no basis for self-sacrifice on this point of view. Why should an atheist, who knows everything is going to end in death, do things that are morally right that go against self-interest? For example, a few years ago there was a terrible mid-winter air disaster in Washington, DC, as a plane crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, spilling its passengers into the icy waters. And as the helicopters came to rescue these people, attention focused on one man who again and again passed by the rope ladder rather than be pulled to safety himself. Seven times he did this, and when they came again, he was gone. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the noble act of self-sacrifice that he did. And yet on the atheistic view, that man wasn’t noble. He did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the rope ladder first, pushed others away, if necessary, in order to survive! But to give up all the brief existence he will ever have for others he didn’t even know? Why? It seems to me, then, that it’s not simply the absence of God that undermines objective moral values, but ethical living is also undermined by the atheistic point of view because you then have no reason to adopt the moral point of view and you have no basis for acts of self-sacrifice.

By contrast, on the Christian view, where you have both God and immortality, you have the necessary presuppositions for the affirmation of objective moral values and for consistent living of the ethical life.

And another of my favorites, the Craig-Taylor debate on the ontological grounding of morality.

Summary:

Is The Basis Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
Richard Taylor and William Lane Craig
October 1993, Union College, Schenectady, New York

Sample Craig:

(2) I argued that moral accountability also exists under the supernaturalist view, and Professor Taylor didn’t deny the point.

(II) What about my critique, then, of naturalism? I said that naturalism doesn’t provide a sound foundation for morality, and here I made two points:

(1) On the naturalist view, objective right and wrong do not exist. Again, Professor Taylor doesn’t deny this point; he just says, “Well, to say that they’re conventional doesn’t mean they’re contemptible.” Well, granted; but it does mean they’re arbitrary, they’re non–objective. There’s no more difference between moral right and wrong than driving on the right–hand side of the road versus the left–hand side of the road. It’s simply a societal convention. And the modern evolutionist thinks these conventions are just based in socio–biological evolution. According to Michael Ruse, a professor of the philosophy of science,

The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than are hands and feet and teeth…. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Nevertheless…such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and…any deeper meaning is illusory….{26}

This is essentially the same view as Professor Taylor’s. Moral values are simply rooted in socio–biological evolution, that have passed down as certain taboos and certain commands, but they have no objective validity in terms of their moral rightness or wrongness. Professor Taylor says, “But I have a high regard for people who are truly moral and decent.” I don’t deny that. Of course he does! But the point is that in his ethics, in his philosophy, he has no basis for that affirmation. What I bring is not a new set of values—I think we pretty much hold those in common—but I’m offering a secure foundation for those values that we all want to hold dear.

You see, on Professor Taylor’s view, there really isn’t any objective morality. I think every one of us here tonight would agree that it’s wrong to kill babies and that the holocaust was morally wrong. But in his book Professor Taylor says, “The infanticide practiced by the Greeks of antiquity did not violate their customs. If we say it was nevertheless wrong, we are only saying that it is forbidden by our ethical and legal rules. And the abominations practiced by the Nazis…are forbidden by our rules, and not, obviously, by theirs.”{27} I submit that that is simply a patently false view of moral values and that naturalism, therefore, can’t provide any objective basis for right and wrong.

And another of my favorites, the Craig-Tooley debate on the problem of evil.

Summary:

A Classic Debate on the Existence of God
Dr. William Lane Craig & Dr. Michael Tooley
November 1994, University of Colorado at Boulder

Sample Craig:

(2) Christian doctrines increase the probability of the coexistence of God and the evils in the world. Let me just mention a couple of these.

(i) On the Christian view, the purpose of life is not happiness as such in this life. Rather it is the knowledge of God—which will ultimately produce true and everlasting happiness. What that means is that many evils occur in this life which might be utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness. But they might not be pointless with respect to producing the knowledge of God. Dr. Tooley assumes when he talks about changes that would make this world a better place, that the purpose of life is basically to be happy in this life. And I certainly admit that you could make changes that might appear to make this life a better place, make it happier. But that’s not God’s purpose. So if you understand that the purpose of life is not happiness as such, I think that you can see that the existence of evil doesn’t necessarily cast any improbability upon God’s existence.

(ii) It’s also the Christian view that God’s purpose spills over into eternal life. In the afterlife God will bestow a glory and happiness upon us that is incomparable to what we’ve suffered here on earth. And the longer we spend in eternity with Him, the more the sufferings in this life shrink by comparison to an infinitesimal instant. Dr. Tooley admits in his article that it is possible that immortality could justify such evils. But, he says, it’s “very unlikely” that there is life after death. Well, I have two comments. First, I’d like him to prove that it’s unlikely that there is life after death.{26} Second, I suggest that the resurrection of Jesus gives us grounds for hoping in life after death, and I’ve attempted to justify that historically. So given these Christian doctrines, I think you can see that the existence of God and evil is not so improbable after all.

[…](4) Finally, I think that there is actually an argument for God from evil. It would go like this:

(i) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there is no God, moral values are either socio-biological by-products or just expressions of personal preference.

(ii) Evil exists. That’s the premise of the atheist. There is real evil in the world.

(iii) Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.

(iv) Therefore, God exists.

Thus the presence of evil in the world actually demonstrates God’s existence because in the absence of God, there wouldn’t be any distinction objectively between good and evil, between right and wrong. So although evil in one sense calls into question God’s existence, in a much deeper sense, I think, it actually requires God’s existence.

So in the light of these four responses, I think that the argument from evil, as difficult and emotionally pressing as it might be, in the end doesn’t constitute a good argument against the existence of God. So I think the four arguments given against the existence of God by Dr. Tooley are inconclusive. You’ve still got my six arguments for God’s existence, and therefore I still think that on balance the evidence favors theism as the more rational worldview.

You can find more debates here.

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