Category Archives: Apologetics

What sets Christianity apart from the other world religions?

A couple of years ago I asked a group of teenagers if they could tell me the difference between Christianity and other religions. Here were their common responses:

  • Christianity has different holidays

Yeah, that was all they could come up with. Other than that, they said, all religions are basically the same.

And, if all the religions are basically the same – except for externals like what holidays are celebrated – why would anyone choose one over the other? Or why would anyone say that one religion is superior or inferior to the others? Why not just be vaguely “spiritual” but not dogmatically religious?

Of course, there are significant differences between the world’s major religions, beyond just the days we take off from work and the rituals we follow. The differences are profound and far reaching.

And here we face an objection from the irreligious: If there are so many religious beliefs, what is it that sets your religion apart from the crowd of religions?

For Christians, the answer is found in one word, and that word is found in the name of our religion: CHRISTianity. What sets apart Christianity, is Christ.

I want to offer 6 ways that Christ sets Christianity apart.

  1. The historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. This evidence forces us to look more closely at the claims of Jesus and at the theological meaning of his death.
  2. Christians follow not only a teaching, but a person. Muslims follow the teachings of Mohammad and Buddhists the teachings of Buddha. Christians follow not only the teachings of Jesus, but the (living) Person of Jesus as well.
  3. Christ “in us” is the source of our “good behavior”. We do not practice what is good through a sheer act of will, of submission, or secret knowledge, but through the indwelling work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
  4. We are saved by grace. God rescues us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, by grace alone through faith alone. We cannot earn even a part of God’s favor. Other religious systems may have a god who displays mercy, but only Christianity shows how salvation is from God from first to last.
  5. Our God is both high above, and intimately close. Philosophical arguments lead us to a transcendent God. Christ shows us that this transcendent God is also intimately close to us, empathizing with our suffering, indeed entering into our suffering in order to rescue us.
  6. In the cross we understand Justice, Love, and Forgiveness. How can we make sense of our deepest philosophical questions? The cross. We see the justice, love, and forgiveness of God fully displayed on the cross. We see both our deepest need, and the most profound answer to that need.

Christianity is not just one among many religions, indistinguishable from the others. It stands out to me as profoundly beautiful, and not just because of its teachings, but because of the Person who stands at the center of our rescue, the person of Jesus Christ.

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Is the uniqueness of Christianity evidence of the truth of the resurrection?

On Sunday I gave as one piece of evidence for the resurrection the following claim:

The disciples’ belief in the resurrection could not have arisen so suddenly out of any “natural” developments in religion. It was in contradiction to the Messianic hopes of Palestinian Judaism and in contradiction to pagan cosmology. (And, therefore, not a conglomeration of Judaism and paganism.) The best explanation for the disciples’ belief, then, is the resurrection. This truth, along with its sudden acceptance among otherwise orthodox Jews, the post-resurrection appearances, and the evidence of the empty tomb, gives strong historical evidence to Jesus’ resurrection.

A friend of mine asked me how I would respond to the skeptic who asked about the similar claims of other religions. Here’s my attempt to do so:

The argument against this apologetic could be phrased in this way:

Apologist: Christianity appeared suddenly with a distinctive view of the world and some explanation of that worldview is required. The best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Skeptic: Other distinctive religions have arisen suddenly, doesn’t the same argument work for them?

Which religions? 

First, I would want to ask the skeptic which religions they are referring to. If they mean Judaism, then Christians would affirm the supernatural nature of Judaism’s origin, since Judaism forms the basis for Christianity. If they are referring to Buddhism or Hinduism then I would instruct them to do more study on those religions since Hinduism had a very slow and varied development over many centuries and Buddhism was originally an offshoot from Hinduism, without a sudden start. The list of religions that fir the skeptic’s claim is probably smaller than he assumes.

The closest similarities to Christianity in terms of distinctiveness and sudden acceptance are Islam, which arose suddenly during the 600’s and Mormonism in the 1800s.

A more precise argument

But at this point we should clarify the apologist’s argument more closely. He is not saying: Because Christianity is distinctive it is true. For, a belief’s distinctiveness has no bearing on its truth. Otherwise, the most bizarre beliefs would be seen as most likely to be true. The apologist is also not saying: Christianity is true because its distinctiveness arose suddenly. If they were, this would appear to apply to Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism of the major religions, but even so, it’s not the argument.

To say that a belief is true or false based on the origin of that belief is, in most instances, a case of the “genetic fallacy.” If a pluralist were to say to a Christian “you are a Christian because your parents are Christians, therefore your beliefs are not true” a Christian could respond, “you are a pluralist because you were raised in a culture where pluralism is the predominant worldview, therefore your beliefs are invalid.” Neither the pluralist nor/or the Christian is making a real argument for the truth or error of the other person’s beliefs.

Instead, the apologist’s argument is more subtle. He argues, instead, that if a belief arose suddenly then we need a historically plausible explanation for that new belief. If a friend of mine came up to me believing that aliens were about to invade the planet then I would want an explanation for this person’s new belief. Perhaps he had a deep-seated paranoia that finally bubbled to the surface. Perhaps he was on drugs and hallucinating. Perhaps he had an encounter with an alien! Regardless, this new belief would require some sort of explanation.

Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism

Here’s where we can bring Christianity back in. The earliest followers of Jesus burst onto the scene with the belief that a man Jesus of Nazareth, who had claimed to be the Messiah and had been crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and should be worshiped and given reverence. We would want an explanation for that belief. And here Christians have a strong case that the best explanation for that belief is the historical resurrection of Jesus.[1]

Can a Muslim make the same case for the origin of Islam? Islam originated with Muhammad and the apparent revelations he received from an angel, teachings that are documented in the Koran. Like Christianity, historians would seek an explanation for Muhammad’s beliefs. Muslims argue that his beliefs came from actual encounters with an angel. Others would seek some other explanation.

There are at least two important distinctions between Christianity’s and Islam’s origins: First, it was a mass of early Christians who believed in the resurrection, not only the disciples, but hundreds who saw the resurrected Jesus. Second, there was corroborating evidence for the resurrection – the empty tomb. Whereas Muhammad’s visions were private, the disciples’ beliefs were public and falsifiable.

What about Mormonism? Like Islam, Mormonism originated from an apparent revelation, though in this case it was by means of physical objects: supposed golden plates discovered and translated – with the help of an angel – by Joseph Smith. Here, once again, the historian requires an explanation for the beliefs of Smith and other early Mormons, though again the case differs from the origin of Christianity. First, I would argue that Mormonism’s distinctives in relation to Christianity are not as distinctive as Christianity’s from its surrounding culture. The most significant distinction between Christianity and Mormonism is its rejection of Jesus’ divinity, which is really a very old and frequent heresy. Second, though, we have the supposed golden plates themselves. There were indeed a select group of people (intentionally limited) that testified to either seeing it in a vision or to even touching the physical objects themselves, but their future testimony is not uniform. Some changed their stories about the plates. This either points to a more subjective/visionary experience, or deliberate falsification. Of course, I am no expert on Mormonism, and will have to refer the reader to some other resource to explore the details, should they be interested.

And so, I think the apologists argument stands as a (relatively) unique argument for the truth of the resurrection. It is possible that other religions could make similar claims, and each would need to be evaluated on its own. And so, I wouldn’t hang my hat entirely on this single argument. It does fit nicely as one of many pieces of evidence which point to the truth of Christianity.

[1] I’m not going to make the case here, but instead refer the reader to several books including Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Craig’s On Guard: Defending your Faith with Reason and Precision, and Dodson and Watson’s Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. I also gave a brief outline of alternative views in this post: Alternative theories to the resurrection.

Tim Keller’s three barriers to faith

In his introduction to The Reason for God Tim Keller shares some of his own spiritual journey and describes three “barriers” to embracing an orthodox Christian faith. I found his categorization especially helpful because these barriers resonate with many of the same barriers I see others experiencing today.

Keller’s religious upbringing vacillated between conservative and liberal forms of Christianity. The conservative side of his upbringing emphasized traditional Christian doctrines and the liberal side expressed doubts about those doctrines and emphasized social activism. Keller thought he saw something wrong in both of these camps:

“The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world. I was emotionally drawn to the former path… But I kept asking the question, ‘If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?’… [Yet] How could I turn back to the kind of orthodox Christianity that supported segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa? Christianity began to seem very unreal to me…”

This “unreality” stemmed from three barriers that lay across his path; an intellectual barrier, a personal barrier, and a social barrier.

The intellectual barrier came from tough questions posed against Christianity: What about other religions? What about evil and suffering? What about God’s judgement? This barrier was overcome in part through reading books and examining arguments.

The personal, interior barrier, came from the transition from an inherited faith that rested on the authority of others, to a personal faith. This barrier couldn’t be overcome intellectually, but through Keller coming to grips with his own needs, flaws, and problems, and by developing a personal relationship with God.

The social barrier stemmed from his search for a group of Christians who cared about both justice and objective truth about God. Finding this group was an essential turning point for Keller.

These three barriers were intertwined and dependent upon each other. He didn’t work through them one at a time, but together.

I can especially relate to the first two barriers – the intellectual and the personal. My intellectual doubts were bound up with my personal struggles. And, as I worked out my relationship with God, some of my intellectual doubts became less difficult as I learned to simply trust God without knowing all the answers. Yet, the intellectual answers gave me more confidence that I was trusting in an objective reality, and not my own wishful thinking.

I was blessed with never having a major struggle with the social barrier. I have always been able to be part of a community of faith that, while always far from perfect, encouraged me and aided my spiritual journey.

Yet I see that many others either separate from a faith community because of the intellectual or personal barriers, which only makes those barriers more formidable, or the separation from the faith community precedes intellectual and personal barriers. In other words, the social barrier for many is tied inextricably to the personal and intellectual side of faith.

As a pastor concerned with helping people overcome barriers it’s important for me to see and properly diagnose these three barriers. Not every barrier is intellectual, or internal, or social. Intellectual answers won’t help everybody, at least not in the same way they did for me. Nor should we dismiss all intellectual questions as ways of avoiding the commands of God. And, we should see the importance of community, which give the context in which those struggling can overcome their personal and intellectual barriers.

Book Recommendation


The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

A Positive Case for the Bible

In the last post I answered several objections to the Bible as God’s Word. In this post, I want to offer a positive case.

The Bible is unique

Why should we think that the Bible might be such a word from God in the first place? For one thing, the Bible claims this position for itself. That’s not sufficient to believe that it is, of course, but if it didn’t make that claim we could rule it out. Second, the Bible stands out among all the other books. Most astounding to me is its breadth, depth, diversity, and unity.

The Bible was written over a 1500-year period by over 40 authors. The authors were from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. They spoke and wrote in different languages. They wrote using different literary genres. They spoke about many controversial topics. And yet, the Bible is remarkably unified. It tells a single grand story. All the pieces fit together (though how they fit together is often the topic of fierce debate). It bears all the marks of human authorship that you would expect from a such an array of authors, but its overall continuity speaks to a grander scheme.

The Bible transcends cultures. Each book, of course, is written in its own cultural context, with its own questions and concerns. Yet none of them simply accept the norms of the culture out of which they were written. They affirm and reject different aspects of that culture, and the basis of that affirmation or rejection is the same: the presence and character of an unchanging God. When the books of the Bible are taken together, we see clearly how the Bible stands above culture. This isn’t a typical line of reasoning for a defense of the Bible, but a book that transcends culture is what I would expect from a God who transcends culture.

A church member who just started reading her Bible came up to me and said, “the Bible is weird.” It sure is, and that’s often the case because it doesn’t fit our own cultural expectations. And what else should we expect from such a book, if it really came from God? Unless you think any single culture is the embodiment of the whole truth, you would expect such a book to affirm and challenge aspects of any culture in which it was written and is read.

The Bible constantly shows itself to be reliable

As I’ve read the Bible, it has shown itself to be a reliable witness of the truth. First, I find in it great wisdom. Even those who don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word recognize the truth with which it speaks on any number of topics. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is widely recognized as an ethical masterpiece. Second, its historical accounts reliably match what we know from archaeology and cultural investigation. We can’t prove the Bible through archaeology, but because the Bible contains historical accounts, those accounts can be checked against other historical data.[1]

The Bible interprets my world

Finally, I find in the Bible an interesting scenario in which if fits with and interprets the world around me. Let me give an illustration:

The Bible says that people are made in God’s image but that they have fallen into sin. This doctrine fits with what I see in both myself and the world around me. I see both beauty and ugliness, goodness and evil. The Bible helps me see where the goodness and beauty come from, God’s creation. And, it helps me see where evil comes from, the rebelliousness of man. I see both in my own soul, recognizing that I am a person, higher and distinct from the animals, and at the same time, that I am a worm, fallible and driven by selfish desire. In that sense, then, the Bible provides a worldview with which my own experience fits. I spoke in a previous post about the explanatory scope of theism. The same is true for the Bible. The worldview it presents has a broad explanatory scope for the ethical and spiritual world available to my senses and intuitions.

The Bible also surprises. For instance, it tells me that I can be saved from my guilt and sin by the sacrificial death of the man Jesus born 2000 years ago. What!? Where did that come from? And, incredibly, I believe it! Is that something I would have come up with on my own? No way. Is that something I think humanity would have come up with on its own? I don’t think so. The “be good and God will accept you” seems like a lot simpler path to salvation to me! In fact, that’s the path every other theistic religion presents. They are all about how we get to God. But in the Bible we have the story of how God reached down to us.

When I consider the message of the cross this story makes perfect sense! If God is holy and we are not then we’re not able to save ourselves. And if we need someone to save us, that person would have to be both God and man. And that Person would have to take the punishment we deserve, etc. So, there’s a logic to it, but it’s a logic that is clearly from God, and not from man. It’s a wisdom, but it’s a heavenly and not an earthly wisdom.

Not proof, but confidence

The reasons given above do not prove that the Bible is God’s Word, but they do give me confidence that it is what it claims to be, and that is sufficient for me.

If you’re unsure about the Bible, I encourage you to read it. Even if you don’t think that it is God’s Word, I suggest that you familiarize yourself with its contents. I can describe it in a post, but there’s really no alternative to reading the source material. From there perhaps you’ll be able to discern if it is from God or not.

A different way to get to the Bible. Looking ahead…

There’s another way I get to the truth of the Bible: The historical resurrection of Jesus. But how those two relate, and why it’s not a circular argument, is the subject of another post.

[1] Note: The two biggest contemporary objections to the reliability of the Bible are in the fields of the origins of life and the existence of miracles. I’ll deal with those in a separate post.

Book Recommendation

Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions

Answering objections to the Bible

In the last post I said that for us to be able to know specific things about God He would have had to communicate with us, and the most likely form of that special communication would be through written language, through a book.

Christians believe that God has spoken to us through the Bible. The defense of that belief takes two forms, a positive affirmation of the uniqueness of the Bible, and an answer to objections against it.

In my experience, the conversation usually starts with the objections, so I’ll start there. In my next post I’ll present the positive case for the Bible. Here are six common objections:

Objection 1: The books of the Bible were written long after the original events took place and are therefore historically unreliable.

At this objection’s most extreme level, I have heard people argue that the New Testament was written by Shakespeare! That simply flies in the face of the facts. The truth is that even the liberal biblical scholars, those who don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word, date the majority of the New Testament manuscripts to the lifetimes of the apostles. Even when examined through a critical lens, it can be demonstrated that the New Testament was written very closely to the events that took place.

There are more variations in interpretations when it comes to the dating of the Old Testament books, though archaeological discoveries have tended to confirm earlier dates. For instance, we now have evidence of writings similar to the books of Moses from around the time when he was said to have lived, demonstrating that previous assumptions that those books could not be dated that far back were false. Some Old Testament books (see Daniel) are assumed to have a late date because they contain predictions about the future which did, indeed, occur (thus, they must have actually been written after the events took place). But this is based on the presupposition that predictive prophecy can’t happen. If God is behind the writing of Daniel, though, it certainly could.

Objection 2: Even if the original were God’s Word, the copies we have of them are corrupt and therefore cannot be trusted.

Biblical critics like to point to statistics that say that there are as many as 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament texts, that is, 400,000 differences can be found between the many manuscripts and manuscript fragments we have available. This, they say, proves that the text we have of the New Testament has become corrupt and that we must then be unable to get back to the original manuscripts.

But we need to take a more critical look at this statistic. What do we really know about textual variations and how they relate to whether or not we can faithfully reproduce what the originals actually said? First, they are spread over around 25,000 manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts. Second, they are condensed in just a few areas. Third, the vast majority are so minor (i.e., variations in spelling) as to be completely negligible.

Once you drill down to textual variations of any possible importance you’re left with very few, and those appear as footnotes in your Bible. Open it up and scan through the pages. You’ll see a few footnotes on each page. I just opened mine and turned to a random page and scanned the footnotes. I came across Mark 7:9 which in the NIV reads: “And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!’” The footnote in my Bible says, of the word “observe”: “Some manuscripts set up”. What’s the impact if we decide to read Jesus’s words as “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to set up your own traditions!”? Nothing. The sense is the same. This is the case with the vast majority of these textual variants.

Now, there are two New Testament variants that are worthy of further discussion. One is the story of the woman caught in adultery. In this story Jesus says the famous line, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Given the discovery that this passage is not included in the earliest manuscripts, and the observation that it appears in different places in older manuscripts, it is unlikely that this passage is part of the original text of John. We see the same thing with the “long ending” of Mark (Mark 16:9-20).

But do these examples show that we can’t get back to the original text? No. In fact, because of the massive number of manuscripts we have available, scholars can be very confident that we can, indeed, know what the originals said. These two passages are the exceptions that prove the rule, for even in these cases, we have a high degree of certainty about their place in the original text. In the cases where we lack that confidence, the sense of the passages are not seriously changed. Significantly, there are no orthodox Christian doctrines which are called into question because of textual variations.

Objection 3: The selection of books for the canon was a political decision, so we can’t trust that the ‘right’ books were selected.

The process of canonization is a longer conversation than I have time for in this post. For a clear explanation I’ll refer you to chapter 2 of Craig Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe the Bible?.

Briefly I’ll say that this objection comes either from giving too much weight to fictitious accounts of the process (see Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code) and from an assumption that the canonization of the Biblical books happened suddenly and without process at some later church council. In fact, very early writings of the church fathers demonstrate that books were considered Scripture long before councils made it “official”.

Objection 4: Because the books are written by human authors, they must be filled with errors.

I recently read an article that assumed that Christians believed that the Bible was dictated, that the human author was basically nothing more than a pen, controlled without his will. This is not what Christians believe (or, it’s not what they should believe anyway).

God used humans to write the books of the Bible. The personalities and perspectives of those authors come out clearly from the text. Each has a unique style. But that doesn’t guarantee that they erred. Christians don’t believe that the Bible was dictated, but that it was inspired. This doesn’t mean that the authors themselves were infallible, but that God could have made what they wrote while writing Scripture infallible, all while their minds and emotions were fully engaged in the process.

Fallible humans write true things all the time. How much more could such a human write truth if they were also being guided and protected by God? Human authorship doesn’t ensure human error in the text.

Objection 5: There are contradictions in the Bible which means that it cannot be God’s Word.

It’s not hard to find lists of apparent contradictions in the Bible. They key word here is “apparent.” Actual contradictions in the originals would be a problem for the believer in the Bible. The question, then, is whether these apparent contradictions are real contradictions.

These supposed contradictions fall into a few categories, not all represented here. Some come from a misunderstanding of the biblical genre. For instance, I was told there was a contradiction between the phrases “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud” (1 Kings 8:12) and “God lives in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16). But these texts are obviously speaking figuratively and communicate different aspects of truth about His character, not about a literal dwelling.

Some come from theological interpretation. Was Abraham justified by his faith alone (Paul), or was he justified by his works (James)? James himself clarifies this by showing that “faith without works is dead.” We’re justified by a living faith. Or, rather, faith is proved genuine by works.

Many come from different eyewitness accounts found in the gospels. But these aren’t contradictions so much as differences in emphasis, or retelling of a similar but different event. Some of these can be quite difficult to harmonize, but after more than a decade of deep study of Scripture I have yet to find one that is a true contradiction.

Summary: I have learned that the Bible is trustworthy. So, whenever I come across a supposed contradiction, I have confidence that a reasonable answer can be found, and all that awaits its discovery is a little research, usually from a good commentary.

Objection 6: Miracles prove that the Bible is mythical and unreliable.

What about the miracles? Do they show that the Bible is more of a myth than a reliable source of knowledge?

Here it’s important to remember where we started, with the assumption that it is at least possible that God exists. Unless you believe in the impossibility of miracles, then this argument shouldn’t hold much weight. After all, if God really does exist, and if He wants to make Himself known, wouldn’t He perform miracles to show us that there is something “beyond” this world? And isn’t it not only possible, but likely, that these miracles would be recorded in His book? I think so.

“The Bible is weird”

Some people object to the Bible because what they encounter therein is odd and offensive. There are a lot of strange things in the Bible, and many are offensive in our current cultural milieu, but I’m not sure that this is a case against the Bible. Should we really expect a transcultural book – which we should expect a book inspired by God to be – to be a perfect fit with our culture? I don’t think so. The fact that the Bible both affirms and challenges the cultural values and expectations of every culture (including ours) is a point for the Bible, not against it. But I’ll explain that more in my next post.

Book Recommendation: 


Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions

Should we all be agnostics?

Let’s say you find the Moral Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, or some other argument for God compelling, does this mean you should be a Christian? Not necessarily. What do these arguments really say?

What can we know from logic and our senses?

First, they show that some Supreme Being exists (for brevity I’ll henceforth refer to this Being as God). It is not irrational to believe in God. In fact, the evidence points strongly in the direction of theistic belief. Second, they say something about God’s nature.

From the cosmological arguments we can see that God must be outside of the universe, He must be timeless, He must be uncaused, He must be a necessary being (from Leibniz). On top of that, he seems to be some sort of Mind or Will which could decide to create one sort of world as opposed to another. We would then describe Him as a Creator. He must be free, for if He were constrained then that higher constraint would be what we mean by God.

From the moral argument we can see that He is the source and foundation of all moral goodness, and from that goodness, issues commands which are to us the foundation for our moral obligations.

We might add to this knowledge evidence from the world we see around us. God has created a world of life, a world with recognizable beauty, and the capacity of His creatures to recognize His existence. Yet we also live in a world of great pain, confusion, and a proliferation of different perspectives on life.

The limitations of our logic and senses

This observational evidence is ambiguous. It requires an interpretation. It tells us something, but we’re not exactly sure what. From our observations and logical capacities, we can confidently say some things about God, but there’s much more we would have to leave unsaid.

Add to that the fact that we are finite and limited creatures seeking to understand an Infinite and Unlimited Being. Given such a vast ontological gap, how could we even begin to say anything intelligible about this Being. I recently read a quote that said: “Show me a worm that can comprehend man and I’ll show you a man that can comprehend God.” This was written by a Christian preacher intended to invoke worship, but in me it was a temptation to despair. The worm is too limited to think or speak intelligibly about man. Are we too limited to know or say anything intelligible about God?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the list of things we can say about God are limited if, that is, our knowledge comes only from our own seeking.

But there’s another way in which we might know God and be able to believe and say more than a limited number of things about Him: He would have to communicate with us.

The nature of revelation

At this point it will be useful to bring in the theological word “revelation”. When applied to God it refers to God showing Himself to humanity. We’ve already seen two ways in which He does this – the physical and moral world. He made a physical and moral world which are accessible through physical and moral senses. However, as we’ve seen, this is insufficient to say a great many other things about God, for that we need a more specific form of revelation, what theologians call “special revelation.”

Here’s where language comes in. Given that we have the capacity for abstract thought through language, that seems like the mostly likely means by which God could give us such a revelation. He could speak to us in a number of ways. He could verbally communicate (a voice from heaven), he could communicate directly to our minds (think an inner, real, but inaudible voice). He could send supernatural messengers. Etc.

Now, this communication, if always private in nature, could create a problem. What would prevent someone from claiming to speak on behalf of God? (Indeed, what does today?) It would make sense, then, for there to be some sort of authoritative source written down which could be referred to again and again to test a supposed “revelation” against.

In this way God could communicate truth about Himself, about us humans, and about our world in a way that is both comprehensible and authoritative. But, the question is, did He in fact do these things and, if He did produce such a book, which one?

And that takes me to the end of this post. Christians, myself included, believe that God has indeed communicated to us in this way, and that this communication is what we find in the Bible. The defense of that argument is the subject of the next post.

A Conflict Between Naturalism and Science?

Around 5 years ago I was browsing the philosophy shelf at Barnes and Noble when I came across a book with one of the most compelling thesis I have ever come across. The book is called Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga argues that while there are apparent conflicts between science and theism, the two are actually fundamentally compatible. And, while science and naturalism are apparently compatible, the two actually have a deep conflict. Given that most in our culture believes the exact opposite, this is a startling thesis.

We first need to define Naturalism and distinguish it from science. Naturalism is the belief that nature is all there is that, at base, there is no purpose or mind directing the universe or humanity. Naturalism is a philosophy, a metaphysic, a worldview. Naturalism is not the same thing as science, though the two are often confused by Christians and Atheists alike.

Science, on the other hand, is the method by which we understand the physical world around us. Science has a deep compatibility with Christianity – though several apparent conflicts. (Plantinga specifically addresses miracles and evolution.)

Conflict and compatibility

The deep compatibility between science and Christianity comes from the nature of God and the nature of humanity. God, in Christianity, reveals Himself in nature, in the physical world. And, He has made us humans in such a way that we can understand that same physical world. Because God is a God of order, the physical world is ordered and subject to rationale inquiry. And, because humans are created in God’s image, we have the capacity to reason, use language, and come up with theories for how things are and how they came to be. Our reasoning, language, and theories may be flawed, but the capacities which we use are generally reliable because they are God-given.

But, whereas there is a deep compatibility between Christianity and science, there is a deep conflict between the pseudo-religion of naturalism and science. What does he mean? Plantinga gives a strong and weak version of his argument. The strong version of his argument, he argues, gives a “defeater” for the naturalist, and here he spends most of his time. The weaker version of the argument doesn’t necessarily provide a “defeater” but for me it is more comprehensible and thus, for now, more compelling.

The reliability of our beliefs from naturalism

Plantinga argues that, if both naturalism and evolution are true, the probability of the content of our beliefs being true, is low. But, if it’s unlikely that our beliefs are true, then we have no reason to have confidence in any of our beliefs, including our beliefs about naturalism and evolution. Thus, the beliefs that naturalism and evolution are true forms a defeater for the argument “naturalism and evolution are true”. And, in fact, it forms a defeater for any other scientific claim.

But why does Plantinga believe that it is improbable that the content of our beliefs are true given unguided naturalistic evolution? The answer lies in the nature of evolution and the materialistic view of neurophysics.

Unguided evolution and neurophysics

First, unguided evolution: The theory of evolution argues that life evolves through natural selection in order to reproduce itself. Natural selection favors whatever “gets the body parts in the right place” in order to survive, and survive long enough to reproduce, thus passing along the genetic code. That is, evolution through natural selection is blind and agnostic when it comes to truth. “Truth” only comes in insofar as it leads to survival and reproduction. If evolution can produce a desired behavior with a lie, it is not the worse for wear.

Second, neurophysics: The brain works through collections of neurons and connections between those neurons. Let’s call a particular collection of neurons firing in a particular way “N”. N has two properties: Neuro-physiological properties (NP Properties) and content. The NP properties are the physical properties which make up the mental state. The content is the belief. For example, the thought “naturalism is overrated” is the belief or content. It is true to the extent that, in the real world, naturalism is overrated. On a naturalistic worldview, the content arises from the collection of neurons, N, firing in a specific way.

Beliefs and Indicators

Here Plantinga makes a crucial distinction between beliefs (the “content” that arises from N) and the indicators that lead to the response which the NP properties produce. That chemical/physical response is what is selected for during the evolutionary process. Whether or not the belief is true doesn’t matter. That the zebra runs away from the lion matters. The content of the Zebra’s belief isn’t. The Zebra’s belief could be a lie. It wouldn’t matter, so long as the Zebra responds in a way that it escapes danger.

If this seems dubious to you, it did to me at first, too. Two reasons spring to mind. First, I implicitly trust that my beliefs are generally reliable. It’s hard to imagine a world in which they are not. But, the question isn’t whether I think my beliefs are reliable, but whether under naturalism I am warranted to think they are.

Second, we often think about our cognitive processes in the following way: The NP properties of the neurons N produces a belief. That belief produces the action. That belief then needs to be reliable for the action to lead to survival and reproduction. But, says Plantinga, that’s not how it works. Again, from a naturalistic/materialistic worldview it’s the NP properties by themselves which produce the action, so the truth of the belief, it’s relevance to the real world, is suspect.

Now, if the truth of beliefs is not what naturalistic evolution selects us for, then what is the probability that our beliefs are reliable? Again, you may think your beliefs are reliable, but the question is this: Given naturalistic evolution, what is the probability of our beliefs being reliable? They’re low.

But, if you doubt whether or not your beliefs are reliable, then you should doubt your belief about naturalism is reliable and you should also doubt your beliefs about science. Thus, belief in naturalism and evolution is self-defeating, since it undermines the reliability of our beliefs in general.

Now, there are a few key steps in this argument that I admit I do not fully comprehend, especially the relationships between the NP properties, actions, and the content of our belief. That makes this strong version of the argument interesting to me, but not quite as compelling as it would be if I understood it more clearly. Perhaps if you read that chapter in his book you’ll be able to enlighten me further.

How sociology helped me see the conflict more clearly

There’s a weaker version of the argument, though, which says something similar, and which is newly compelling to me. After I read this from Plantinga five-ish years ago I set it aside. It gathered dust on a shelf in my brain until I started reading a lot of sociology books. There I discovered something interesting: Naturalistic sociologists are fond of pointing out how unreliable our reasoning actually is. 

Case in point: Future Babble by Dan Gardner. The thesis of this book is that people – especially experts – are terrible at making predictions about the future because humans weren’t designed through the evolutionary process to do this. In fact, Gardner gives a whole list of instances where we shouldn’t trust our beliefs because of evolutionary embedded functions. We’re not, on Gardner’s account, fitted for this sort of predictive and abstract thought. As I read, though, I couldn’t help be think: Gardner is undermining his own argument! If I shouldn’t trust experts, why should I trust Gardner? If I couldn’t trust my own faculties, why should I trust my own interpretation of his book?

Gardner’s is an exceptional case, but it’s far from the only time I’ve noticed this. There seems to be a growing consensus in the secular books I’m reading that evolution has not produced people who are terribly good at discerning truth. In most cases, it’s just not relevant to survival! But, again, if the naturalist recognizes that he is not equipped to discern truth, why should he accept his truth about such questions as: Does God exist?

The compelling argument to me then, is this: Perhaps there are some beliefs which we would expect evolution to produce a strong correspondence between that belief in reality. But there are other beliefs, those most associated with abstract and technical thought, which naturalistic evolution would not design us for. Or rather, for which unguided evolution would be entirely agnostic. Philosophy, mathematics, the scientific method, etc. would have had no bearing on whether or not a member of the species could survive and reproduce. In fact, today, knowledge of some of these areas might be a detriment to reproduction (“What does an engineer use for birth control? his personality”).

Closer correspondence with reality

In other words, give unguided evolution, it seems we shouldn’t trust our beliefs to tell us the truth unless they are specifically associated with those things which evolution would select. “Naturalism is true” is one of those claims which we shouldn’t trust, given our belief in naturalism. Hence, it defeats itself.

But, if God exists and created us then we would expect him to enable us survive, reproduce, and be able to think rationally about philosophy, science, religion, morality, mathematics, and all sorts of other abstract things which have nothing to do with survival and reproduction. And, of course, we do think about all those sorts of things and, indeed, our beliefs do seem to be at least somewhat reliable – though certainly far from infallible.

Thus, once again, I see the rationality of belief in God for, once again, it provides a broader explanatory scope of the world  I live in than does atheism.