A Way To Simplify The Big Picture

The Cumulative Case for Christianity

If you want to be able to train others — even if it’s just your own family — to be able to make the case for the truth of Christianity, you have to understand it yourself. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you do that. I will share the best ones I know of in the series of posts that follow. But before I start, I want to offer a “big picture” that you can always keep in the back of your mind as you think about the different categories of evidence. If you’re anything like me, pictures help do that. So, I have tried to simplify things in the diagram at right.

This is simply a way to organize the evidence in your mind’s eye.

Foundational Evidence For Theism

The brown categories at the bottom of the diagram offer us the basic evidence for the existence of some kind of a theistic God — a God who is real and interacts with the universe in which we live. I have boiled this down into three basic categories that give evidence for the type of God who is a personal, moral agent who must exist outside the physical universe, but is also able to act within it. The evidence contained in these three foundational categories is the only explanation for the following characteristics of our world:

  • It is a world in which we all recognize that real, moral truths exist and that they are constantly being violated
  • It is an actual, physical thing that came into existence sometime in the finite past
  • Whatever/whoever caused the beginning of the universe could not have been a part of the physical universe itself
  • It is designed to allow for, and sustain, the existence of living things
  • Some of those living things are beings who have moral, mental, and physical attributes

Obviously, there is a lot to each of these topics and I will provide resources to support each of them, but the takeaway is simply that our claim to believe that there is a God is not based on some kind of wishful thinking or irrational hope. It is based on evidence — concrete evidence about the way the world actually is.

Since we have evidence that there is a God and that this God’s attributes must be consistent with the evidence listed above, it follows and that one of the theistic religions must be true. In order to determine which of the theistic religions is true, we need more specific information.

Specific Evidence For Christianity

The blue categories at the top of the diagram are what allow us to differentiate Christianity from the other theistic religions. Here, we look at data from archaeology, history, and compare the manuscript evidence from those religions in order to identify which of them is true. This is where the strength of the case for Christianity shines. No other religion even comes close to having the amount of evidence to support:

  • The existence of its primary historical figure — Jesus of Nazareth
  • The archaeological relics that support its story from the very beginning
  • A world-changing event — the Resurrection — that is central to its claims
  • The number of manuscripts that verify its authenticity and reliability

That’s the case for Christian Theism in a nutshell.

This simple diagram gives us a way to categorize the reasons we have for believing the Christian story of reality — reasons that are based in factual evidence. We can be confident that our faith is justified, not because it makes us feel good about ourselves, or because it “works for us,” but because it is actually true!

Now for the hard part.

If you aren’t already familiar with the information above, it won’t seep into your brain through osmosis. You have to be dedicated to familiarizing yourself with it. In the posts that follow, I will give you resources — videos, articles, and books — to help fill in the details of each of these categories of evidence. But remember, you don’t have to become a biblical scholar and master every subject listed above in order to prepare yourself and those you love to use them. You simply have to understand the basics and be willing to go find answers. In the meantime, here are some fundamental things to understand about what this all means and how to use it:

  1. Knowing “facts” gives you confidence to engage with others but, in the cultural climate we live in, citing facts will rarely convince others to change their minds.
  2. Your attitude may go further than your evidence in compelling others to consider what you’re saying.
  3. Asking questions is almost always more effective than making statements.
  4. Telling your story is vastly more interesting than regurgitating another person’s data.

Finally, always remember that you are not meant to convince people to agree with you. You are not the one who leads them to the truth. You are not the one who saves them. You are responsible for “giving a reason for the hope you have” and letting the Holy Spirit do the rest. You are only meant to train those in your little corner of the world to be prepared to engage people in a winsome way.

That’s your “job.” And when you’ve done it, relax … and let God do His.

 

The Cries That Bind

Why Doubt Puts Us In Good Company

Twenty years ago, on August 31, 1997, Princess Diana died in a tragic crash in Paris in a car with her boyfriend while her husband and two children waited for her in London. Five days later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta died due to complications that apparently developed after a decades-long battle with heart disease that worsened with her contracting malaria the year prior. Over the next three months Princess Diana graced the covers of the major news magazines Newsweek and others at least nine times. The world grieved. Her story led the evening news every night and her funeral was broadcast live to millions. Sir Elton John even re-wrote a song for her.

Meanwhile, Mother Teresa barely warranted mention in the news tsunami that left her swamped behind the flash and glitz of the princess. This said more about our cultural values than Mother Teresa ever could have said herself.

But this week that changed. Suddenly, Mother Teresa is newsworthy … the lead story no less … cover material. This week Mother Teresa has even supplanted the backwash tsunami of the ten-year remembrance of Diana’s death. But it is not the ten-year remembrance of Mother Teresa that the press has found so marketable. It is not even a belated appreciation for her 60 years of work with the poor and dying in India.

No, what is so tantalizingly important about her now is that she had a “crisis of faith” that has recently been revealed in letters which she had specifically requested not be made public, but rather destroyed. (Funny how the press’s commitment to its sources’ privacy changes from time to time — especially when they can scoop a story like this one). The hook, you see, is that Mother Teresa, a world-renown icon of religious commitment, sometimes questioned her faith. Time magazine reports that …

… one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.

That, to a secular press hell-bent on de-legitimizing faith or anyone who claims to have it, is too juicy to not be shouted from the rooftops. Mother Teresa has become a target for their secular wrath. And that is the only reason they have any interest in her now. In her crying out to God, militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens see nothing but an opportunity to exploit. Hitchens despises a:

… Church [that] should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.

But just what was Mother Teresa’s “crisis”? At various points in her life, she questioned the existence of God because He seemed hidden and unreachable amid the squalor and misery of life that engulfed her. God’s hiddenness was painful to her, her longing for Him palpable:

For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves but does not speak … Such deep longing for God—and … repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—[The saving of] Souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing … What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

How is it that someone as smart as Christopher Hitchens; someone who claims his vast intellectual superiority will not allow him to accept the mindlessness of faith; someone whose presuppositions preclude any possibility that his own anti-theism may be wrong; someone who blithely rejects all possible evidence for the existence of God without consideration — someone, in other words, who blindly accepts his own atheism — How is it that someone like him can fault someone like Mother Teresa for succumbing to the false deception of a “blind faith” when he reads those words?

Read her words again and listen … Are these the thoughtless ruminations of someone who accepts her faith unquestioningly? How could anyone read those words and not see the intellectual wrestling match that is going on within Teresa’s tortured head? Call it doubtful, or despairing. But please don’t call her faith “blind.” The fact is that Mother Teresa, like any legitimately thoughtful seeker, struggled to see God in the misery of a fallen world — yet committed herself to demonstrating His presence to others anyway. And she did so while still being honest enough to ask herself the toughest questions of all.

Can any of the so-called “new atheists” claim such an honest pursuit of the truth for themselves?

Finally, those who are so quick to disparage both Mother Teresa and her religion on the basis of her questioning faith should know that Mother Teresa is not alone. Other fairly famous believers have shared the same sentiments:

  1. How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises … Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?
  2. Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.
  3. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
  4. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The first is Habakkuk. The second is Job. The third is David. The fourth is Jesus himself, speaking in agony from the cross in his human nature with the only words he could muster, in a call for his hearers to remember David’s similar cry.

I don’t make a habit of quoting the Bible here but in this case I will make an exception. I do so because this last quote of Jesus is a line commonly used to question not only his commitment to “the cause,” but His very divinity itself. Though his physical condition would only allow him to speak the first lines of this passage, those who knew and understood the Scripture to which he was referring would have instantaneously recognized that the rest of the Psalm 22 to which Jesus alludes is not only prophetic in its description of His actual circumstances on the cross, but ends in a radically different light:

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.

4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.

7All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads
:

8“He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help
.

12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.

15My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet
.

17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me
.

18They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing
.

19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.

23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help
.

25From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows
.

26The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him
,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations
.

29All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive
.

30Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord
.

31They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it
.

The tone is completely different from the one we are led to believe Jesus held. These are not the words or thoughts of a skeptic. They are the clearly confident claims of a victor who holds to an overall eternal view of a temporarily hidden God.

It seems, in other words, that when considered more closely, Mother Teresa’s groaning for an absent God puts her in the company of faithful giants. Her pleading and doubt is far from an admission of a loss of faith. Instead, it is a demonstration of the inevitable result of the fallenness of rebellious creatures. Our yearning for a hidden God is an inevitable but temporary condition — the result of our separation from our only Source of hope. It is a recognition of the futility of life without Him that drives us to despair.

But that despair, it must be remembered, is self-inflicted. The hiddenness and separation in the relationship between God and humanity did not begin with God. We hid from Him first.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:7-8)

Our cries for God to reveal himself to us — to stop hiding from us — are the common lament that defines the human condition. From the most skeptical unbeliever to the most honored of the saints, those cries bind us together in the search to recapture meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence. From the labs of modern scientific laboratories, to the editors’ desks of the “new atheists”; from the Hollywood rehab clinics and the overcrowded jail cells, to the filth of the ghettos of Calcutta, the cry is always the same — and the answer to the cry is never far away and never hidden from our sight:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Thinking About The “New Atheists”

Engaging The Belief Police

[This is a re-post from several years ago that I think is still completely relevant today]

Two books on the NY Times Best Seller list share a common thesis — that religion in general, and Christianity specifically, is not just wrong, or off-base, or a subject worth debating — but that it is evil, deluded, dangerous, and the righteous target of the thinking man’s scorn. Sam Harris’, “Letter To A Christian Nation,” (# 31 on the list) and Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion,” (# 14 and on the list for 24 weeks) don’t just want to appeal to their atheistic brethren, but want to question the sanity of religious belief itself and suggest that we would all be more safe if religion were forcibly banished from the public square.

This view of religion is nothing new to Dawkins who, blasting the intolerance of Creationists in his 1986 book, “The Blind Watchmaker,” claimed that …

It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

With an incredibly ironic inability to see the intolerance of those two ideas existing in parallel, Dawkins denies any respect to those who happen to disagree with him — and instead offers them nothing but contempt. Disgusted by the proselytizing of religious folk, he engages in a little proselytizing of his own when, on the fifth page of his most recent book he claims that, “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

For all the bluster these two claim about their own “healthy” and “vigorous” minds as compared to the mental midgets who oppose them, it is a little too convenient that they fail to even mention the significant input to science and philosophy that has been contributed by theists throughout history. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that most of the greatest scientific minds — Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler — were all devout men who studied the physical universe because they believed it was ordered and a reflection of the mind of God. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the great philosophers throughout history — Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis — who were not only Christian theists, but that began as atheists and reasoned their way to faith. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that the Bible itself challenges us to “test everything” and that the scientific revolution began with Christian scientists who did just that.

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Two Knockdown Arguments For God

In a conversation about how we reason to the idea of God as Creator, a student once asked me a great question that I thought others might also find worth thinking about. His question was this:

I have always been curious and bothered by the fact that whenever I ask where God came from I have been given the answer, “He was just always there,” and assume we have won the argument. But that answer doesn’t sit well with me. It seems like a copout. When atheists and scientists are confronted on what came before the ‘Big Bang,’ they’ll respond that it was just matter and energy. If we then ask, “Well then where did the matter and energy come from?” the scientists will respond, “Well they are just there.”

How can we say that the answer, “the matter and energy were always there,” isn’t a suitable answer if we say the same thing about our God? It just doesn’t make very much sense to me. Please offer any insight you might have on this subject. It has been bothering me for a long time.

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Mind Boggling Silence

There are two basic views (and some sub-categories of each) about how to understand the relationship between the brain and the mind. The first, physicalismsays that the mind is nothing more than an extension of the brain. The second, dualism, says that the mind and brain are different things altogether.

Physicalism insists that there is no difference between the mind and the brain — that the “mind” is simply a way to refer to the results of chemical processes that go on in the neural network controlled by the gray matter between your ears.

“According to strict physicalism, a human being is merely a physical entity. The only things that exist are physical substances, properties and events … The physical substance called the brain has physical properties such as a certain weight, volume, size, electrical activity, chemical composition and so forth … when someone has an occasion of pain or an occurrence of a thought, physicalists hold that these are merely particular physical events — events where certain C-fibers are firing or certain electrical and chemical events are happening in the brain and central nervous system.”*

Since thoughts and feelings are nothing but physical events that result from electrical impulses between neural cells, we can actually connect electrodes to the brain, stimulate it in different ways, and observe which area of the brain “lights up.” We can manipulate that area of the brain with surgery or chemicals and thereby alter behavior, or at least understand what made you act the way you did when you felt sad, or angry, or happy, or attracted to a mate.

Once we know where our different behaviors and inclinations reside, we are well on our way to solving all the mysteries of the origin and operation of imagination, concepts, thoughts, instincts, and morality. Since these are nothing but different kinds of chemical reactions, and “free will” is really nothing but an illusion about the responses the chemicals in your brain have to various inputs from physical events that preceded the actions you take, neuroscientists like will soon be able to explain and control each of them.

You are your brain and your brain is a computer made of meat.

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The Disturbing Sound of Silence

I can only recall a few movies that have left me speechless. Silenceis one of them. The film makes you live up to its name while you are experiencing it because the intensity is overwhelming at times. When the action goes silent, the theater you are sitting in also feels like a tomb. No whispering. No shuffling of feet. No rustle of people moving in their seats. But it also leaves you in stunned silence days later when you can’t get it out of your mind. It is a movie that makes you contemplate some of life’s most serious questions. Is God out there? Does He know I exist? Why all the suffering?

Silence is a movie that doesn’t give answers to those questions; it only makes them more real. There are no clichés thrown around. No neatly wrapped conclusions. This movie will not make any religious believer feel better about the topic of doubt but it will make them less prone to dismiss it.

Without spoiling the plot, or trying to pontificate on the profound topics this film explores, here are some practical takeaways I think are worth mentioning

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The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017)

Click Above To Order

Greg Koukl’s newest book, The Story of Reality: How The World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens In Between, is a clear, concise, non-threatening overview of the Christian worldview. The beauty of this book is that it turns the common arguments for the Christian God into exactly what the title suggests — a story that makes sense of everything we observe and experience in this life. It is a masterful presentation of the oldest definition of truth as the correspondence between what we believe about something and the way the world actually is.

Koukl’s weekly radio show and podcast are always informative and entertaining. I consider him to be the most clear, down-to-earth, understandable Christian apologist on the planet. His calm demeanor, and his ability to sift through complex questions and clarify useful answers with grace and wisdom, is truly something to behold. With this book, he has taken that gift of communication and put it on paper to deliver a masterful picture of the Christian message. If you are serious about your faith, buy this book and devour it. If you know someone who is a seeker, or even someone who already considers themselves to be a Christian but wants to be better able to articulate their Christian convictions, give them this book as a gift. You will both be glad you did.

 

 

An Unexamined Faith

In the spirit of open discussion and a defense of an approach to faith issues that is predicated on thinking for one’s self, I dug up an old USA Today article that demonstrates what I believe to be an important distinction between the culturally accepted view (that faith amounts to an unjustified “blind leap”) and the biblical view that faith is a thoughtful act of trust. This story, published several years after the 9-11 terrorist attack [linked here: Those Touched Most Deeply By 9/11, A Turning Point In Faith], provides a short but telling insight into the way many approach issues of faith in our culture. The gist of the piece is that the tragedy of 9/11 had a significant impact — in both directions — on the faith of those who were personally affected by the terrorist attacks.

The “violence and pain” of the worst terrorists attack in history brought out not only the dangers of religious fanaticism, but the problem that all religions must face in addressing the problem of evil in our world. As the article notes,

Many whose lives were changed that day are still coming to terms spiritually with 9/11. Some have taken comfort from their faith; others have found it lacking. Some have a stronger faith, a different faith or no faith at all.

I admit that this is nowhere near a scientific study of the issues surrounding how people consider their faith (or lack of it), but I do believe the anecdotal evidence in this story reveals a lot about how many approach the topic. A few examples …

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Peace With The Bedlamites

“Black Friday” chaos, “Cyber Monday” deals, Amazon Prime, stress, retail profits, travel disruptions, and finding the “right gift” (which, apparently, demands a trip to the Lexus or Mercedes dealership) have all come to define this time of year. The only thing that seems to change is how early it starts. Santa in Walmart in October? No problem. A giant, inflatable snowman writhing in your front yard? Of course.

‘Tis the Season! Happy Holidays!

Welcome to the cultural event formerly known as Christmas. How did we get here? Has our society lost its mind? It seems that with regard to the celebration of Christmas the answer is clearly, “yes.” But maybe a little history will help to put things in perspective …

In 1247 the sheriff of London, a man named Simon FitzMary founded a priory for the sisters and brethren of the order of the Star of Bethlehem just outside the city walls. It was used, as one of its special purposes, for the housing and entertainment of the bishop and canons of St. Mary of Bethlehem, its mother church, and thereby became known as the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem.

By 1330, records show that the priory had become a hospital and that by 1403 some of its patients began to remain there permanently. When King Henry VIII later dissolved the Catholic monasteries in Britain, the priory was given to the city of London and, in 1547, officially sanctioned as an insane asylum which soon became infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the insane and the clamor, commotion, and pandemonium that could be heard emanating from within it. Because the local residents spoke in a dialect that didn’t quite live up to the King’s English, their cockney pronunciation of Bethlehem came out as “bedlam.”

So, in a way that only human beings could contrive, the word we now use to describe lunacy and chaos actually has its source in the name of the city of Jesus’ birth: Bethlehem.

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