This is a guest post by Andrew L. He is a 40-something business consultant, former Christian, current atheist, and mountain biker. He lives in Denver.
With the recent talk of “crashers” at the Reason Rally, I became curious about what is new in the world of Christian apologetics. So when I saw an interview promoting a faith-defending conference that would feature Lee Strobel, I bought a ticket.
Mr. Strobel is the author of the Case For… books that seem to have persuaded a few to convert to Christianity and annoyed many non-believers with their faux-journalism tone. Mr. Strobel and I have traveled opposite paths. He claims to have gone from atheism to Christianity in his early adult years while I’ve done the opposite by leaving Christianity for atheism. I didn’t lapse out of Christianity; I changed my mind.
During this brief seminar, six “Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask” were raised. Topics covered everything from the basics of “Why believe there is a God?” to (the more currently trendy) “Why believe there is a hell?” in response to questions raised by Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the like. Generally I was impressed with the presenters and their presentation skills. While at times, several of them lapsed into what I call “pastor voice” — that sing-songy, almost hypnotic, rolling speech pattern many pastors use when preaching — they generally did a good job of using interesting stories and hitting the high points in the very brief 20 minutes they had for each question. While, on the whole, I don’t like Mr. Strobel’s writing, he is a good speaker and his natural enthusiasm is somewhat infectious. Presentation counts for a lot — but my bias is for the information, for the facts, for the strength of the argument. Not surprisingly, I was less happy with the argument and information content and I’ll cover these in greater detail below.
The conference was at a large — some would say “mega” — Denver suburban church located on a hilltop with outstanding views of our Colorado mountains. About 600 people were in attendance — doubling my own predicted estimation — and seemed chiefly drawn from the hosting congregation. We were told the conference was being broadcast to several churches, including ones in Australia and Guam.
As the event progressed, it occurred to me that this was similar to sales seminars I had attended for work in the past. We learned how to present the basic case, establish credibility, handle objections, and showcase the superiority of our own offering versus that of the competitors. When in the closing comments one of the presenters asserted apologists are NOT selling fire insurance — meaning avoidance of the fires of hell — the comparison was sealed. We’ll tell you about all the good reasons to believe and all about how great and loving our God is — but if you still don’t believe, well, then you’re hell bound and isn’t that a terrible thing to risk?
After brief introductory comments, Mr. Strobel was the first presenter, answering “What makes you think God exists at all?” He made 4 of the same 5 points I’ve heard repeated for the basic case for any form of theism. (In fact one of the arguments isn’t even Christian in origin; it’s Muslim.) The arguments can be summarized like this:
- God was necessary to the creation of the Universe.
- The universe must have been fine-tuned by God.
- God is necessarily the designer of our biological information.
- Because we have objective morality, there must be a God.
Since Mr. Strobel knew he was presenting mostly to those who already held a strong belief in Christianity, the content was fairly shallow. I had a feeling that he would’ve gone deeper into his points in front of a group of atheists.
At one point, Mr. Strobel threw out what I considered one of the howlers of the event — something so wrong, it’s funny. Strobel stated that Stephen Hawking‘s claim that the law of gravity favored universe formation was disproved by ancient philosophers who had proven that our universe must have had a cause.
That was the common thread between all four of the arguments. Because of X, which is complicated or perfect, there must be a god. While Strobel mocked Richard Dawkins for “not knowing” that within Christian theology, no one created God, Strobel argued (far more irresponsibly) that God must be uncaused, immaterial, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, and possessing a will — meaning an ability to decide and to take action.
I don’t challenge whether its possible for something to be uncaused; I challenge whether this combination of traits is even possible to exist. What does it mean to be all-knowing – how can one definitively know they know everything? As a child, I was taught that God formed planets and stars; but as an adult, I know how — through naturally occurring phenomena. As science peels the onion of reality, there will probably always be some new complexity that theists can point to and say that only God can account for that. So be it. If Christians are always one or more steps behind on the science curve, it’s their loss, not science’s.
Their arguments (especially the one about objective morality) were so dishonest, I started feeling that the best response would be to not engage them on this point at all, similar to Dawkins’ stance on debating evolution with Creationists.
The next presentation was by Mark Mittelberg, author of the book that inspired this event’s format and co-partner of Mr. Strobel in the apologetics-promoting Institute at Cherry Hills. His topic was “Why trust the Bible; isn’t it full of mistakes?” Mittelberg took what I would call a weak set of examples of discrepancies in the Bible and then attempted — with varying degrees of success — to argue them away. For a couple of examples, he cited the differences in phrasing on the sign posted on Jesus’s cross, the number of animals Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, and the nature of Judas’ death. The problem wasn’t that there might not be some true-but-outlandish explanation that would harmonize the accounts. The problem was whether it’s responsible for us to engage in reconciling these accounts recklessly.
Near the end of his presentation, Mr. Mittelberg implied it was non-believers who wanted to paint Christians into an inerrant corner. But it isn’t my claim that the Bible is inerrant. Take for example, an example not cited by Mittelberg, the differences in the denial of Jesus by Peter in the events surrounding Jesus’ trial. It’s possible to create theoretically-possible-but-very-unlikely scenarios to account for the discrepancy.
None of these examples is necessarily central to the doctrines of Christianity, though they do speak to the honesty and reliability of its writers. There are, however, discrepancies that are central and these would form my questions to the would-be-apologist. Mittelberg spent the rest of his time appealing to his audience to approach the Bible on friendly and positive terms. Such advice is poor preparation for the would-be-apologist who will encounter hard questions, who will contend with the Biblically uneducated, and who will encounter those with open hostility to the Bible.
Next up was Dr. Douglas Groothuis, who heads philosophy and apologetics training at a Denver based seminary. He spoke on the topic: “Jesus was a good man — but the Son of God?” For those familiar with C. S. Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord, this was the format this presentation followed with the addition of arguments against the idea that Jesus was also not a legend. It was the most academic of the presentations in tone.
Dr. Groothuis tried to make the case that because of the Resurrection, Jesus is God. The evidence, also known as the minimal facts case: Jesus was executed and buried in a known grave. Then that grave was found empty. Jesus’ disciples and others claimed to have later seen Jesus alive and this dramatically changed their lives. While I do dispute that all of these are verified by history, especially the known tomb and its empty discovery, I have my own minimal fact problem. While I’m told I should trust that these 2000-year-old facts are historically reliable, these facts convinced few, chiefly fellow Jews, who lived in those times and in close proximity to those events.
“Why choose Christianity over all the other religions?” was the topic of Dr. Craig Hazen, an instructor with Biola’s apologetics program. Through his humor, Hazen was the most accessible of all of the presenters, though some of his humor relied on the stereotyping of atheists and other non-Christians. This really wasn’t a crash course in “comparative religions.” (Who could possibly do that in 20 minutes?) Instead Hazen presented his case for Christian superiority. His points were: Christianity is testable, salvation (meaning eternal life with God) is a free gift, the Christian worldview best fits reality, and Christianity has Jesus at the center (other religions and philosophies attempt to co-opt him). He followed his presentation with a rather rousing call to arms that drew spontaneous applause and left even me slightly emotionally affected.
I didn’t buy his points either, though. Christianity is anything but a free gift — given its demands for life-long dedication. Decision making and ethical behavior are made secondary to the perceived thoughts of God. Knowledge and science are to be trusted only to the extent they don’t contradict written and other claimed revelations from God. That, besides not being free, is actually a very high price to pay. As a naturalist, I find a good fit of my worldview to our reality. Further, how can we know Christians haven’t merely melded their claims of revelation to conform to the reality within which we live?
After a break, Mr. Strobel was up again to answer, “How could God allow so much pain and suffering?” Strobel correctly points out that this is both an both an emotionally challenging problem for those who have experienced significant suffering and is also an intellectual challenge that seems to paint God into a corner of either be uncaring or outright cruel. This is a corner Strobel believes God escapes due to the “fact” that suffering is an outgrowth of sin and outright immoral behavior.
Ultimately, Strobel’s position relies on an appeal to authority — God knows things we don’t, God uses suffering to draw us into belief, God uses suffering to discipline and build character. But these are reasons that only work until you stand back to consider the whole argument. God is so clever He has a reason we haven’t even conceptually considered? An all-powerful God can only draw us to Him by our suffering? God can only build our character through our suffering? These are assertions that simply don’t get the job done. This seems particularly unjust of God given that He supposedly taught the parable of the Good Samaritan — the lesson of which is we have a moral duty to provide aid when needed. It seems decidedly more honest to just acknowledge that suffering is simply a natural part of our existence.
The final formal presentation was by Mr. Mittelberg who answered “Is hell real and does God really send people there?” Mittelberg did a satisfactory job of demonstrating that the Bible teaches that both Heaven and Hell exist. He also cited near death experiences — hard to accept as a serious line of evidence — and a hope for an ultimate sense of justice. Mittelberg then tried to make the case that Hell is just by making the standard claim that it is non-believers who send themselves to Hell. Then Mittelberg presented, fairly unusual among all the theology I’ve heard, his case that there are degrees of punishment within Hell. His example was that Hitler will be punished more severely than a grandmother who simply doubted Christianity.
Mr. Mittelburg followed his presentation with a call (a prayer) to become believers.
Next, all four speakers spoke on what believers can do to initiate and succeed at evangelistic discussions. It was refreshing in its reduced formality. Dr. Groothuis said he’s spent 30-ish years trying to essentially disprove Christianity and he hasn’t succeeded. While that is a suspect claim, I am also left with the clear impression that these men truly believe what they say. While book sales have probably made Mr. Strobel quite wealthy, his work wasn’t chiefly motivated by its wealth potential. I might buy a house or a car from any of them; I just wouldn’t buy a religion.
Too often these presentations relied on fairly extensive appeals to authority or assertions to “just accept this possible explanation since you can’t prove differently.” This doesn’t work for me and my disbelief is largely unmoved by these presentations. In the past, I’ve explained my disbelief to Christian friends by saying my doubts were like thoroughly enjoying a movie and then realizing the next morning that there were all these obvious plot holes. These presentations did nothing to close the plot holes of Christianity.
I left the event with a couple of new thoughts and a couple of new questions. I wonder if structured training regarding apologetics is something that should be offered within our circles so we can discuss and debate right back. Though I would still stack our young defenders against theirs any day, I’ve cringed at the knowledge gaps some people on our side have displayed on YouTube or on blog posts. This need for education continues into adulthood where I may know my biology and Christian philosophy but I could use some help when it comes to the methods of philosophy or the conclusions of cosmology.