As if in a dream, I found myself walking through a wood, earnestly debating with a young man wearing bell-bottoms. He looked strangely familiar, but for some reason I could not remember why. We seemed to have been talking for some time.
Me: Tell me, though—Why does Christianity seem like nonsense to you?
Him: I’ve always tried to be a reasonable, rational person. Christians are naïve and gullible; they just believe in this fairy tale about Jesus because they want to. My dad says religion is a crutch, and that’s what I think, too.
Me: Well, people often do believe things because they want to rather than because such belief is warranted. I wonder, though, how can you be so sure that they are the ones whose desires are leading them astray? What about your own presuppositions and desires? How do you know that you aren’t the one ignoring reason and evidence because you don’t want to believe? That is, in fact, what the Bible would say. God has made Himself known in many ways, but we each find our own excuses for disbelieving.
Him: I don’t know why I am telling you this, but you’ve put your finger on a sore point. I find that every time I get close to thinking that the Bible might be true, I run away in a panic. I have to admit, that doesn’t sound very objective.
(He scratched his beard as I scratched mine.)
Me: No, it doesn’t.
Him: After all, though, you can’t escape the fact that one needs good evidence and reasons to believe. Supposedly the Israelites got to see God part the waters of the Red Sea. If I saw the waters of the Red Sea miraculously part, I would believe, as well.
Me: It’s funny you should say that. Even though the Israelites went through the Red Sea and saw miracle after miracle, the Bible records that, in fact, they did not believe. They did not trust God, and in the end they voted to kill Moses and go back to Egypt. So much for the power of miracles to induce belief.
Him: OK, I’ll grant you that a stubborn person can disbelieve even the evidence of his own eyes. But I don’t want to be stubborn—at least, I don’t think I do. But where is this evidence? Where are the good reasons I should believe in Jesus?
Me: Well, I think about it like this. Right now you have a worldview, a way of looking at reality that excludes God. There are really two questions: Does your worldview hold up? And does the Christian worldview hold up better?
Him: Of course my worldview holds up. I can make perfectly good sense of the world. Science has explained pretty much everything to us. Heck, Apollo 15 just got back from landing men on the moon a couple of months ago. Human reason is perfectly capable of explaining the world without God. As for the Christian worldview, it can’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s obvious that there is no God. Where is He? Why doesn’t He show Himself?
Me: Let’s start with your current worldview. It’s a funny thing about the modern world—just as man is confidently asserting that science allows him to know everything, philosophers are telling him he has no right to think he knows anything, including his own existence. After all, if mankind is just a product of random forces in the universe, what reason do we have to think there is any relationship between the activity in our minds and the real world—if there is a real world? Something tells me you have thought about this before.
Him: Yes, but these questions just get me angry. Obviously our minds get us in touch with reality. We just don’t know how.
Me: Here, at least, is a place where the Christian worldview has it all over the centuries-old debates of the philosophers. As human beings, we are born with a great confidence that we can know things as they are, and the Bible tells us where that confidence comes from. We are made in the image of God, in the image of the one who made both our minds and the world we are trying to know.
Him: You sound just like Francis Schaeffer. My high school philosophy teacher made us read Escape From Reason, and it made me furious. Schaeffer supposedly showed the philosophical problems with all the art that I love—the movies of Fellini and Bergman, the poetry of Eliot, the music of the Beatles, and so on. He berates Juliet of the Spirits because Fellini wants “to prevent the viewer from distinguishing between objective reality and fantasy.” But that’s exactly what makes the movie so powerful! I just don’t think Schaeffer gets it. I love the tragic resignation in a poem like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Despairing, but such a beautiful despair.
Me: You’re forgetting about the first part of the poem, where Arnold explains where the despair comes from.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Whether he knew the answer or not, Arnold had the right diagnosis: Christian faith provides us the foundation for knowing who we are and why our lives have meaning. Being created by God does not just explain how we can know the world; it explains why we are personal beings, who we are, and what our purpose is. No philosophy that has tried to build on a non-Christian base has accomplished as much. You are familiar with B. F. Skinner, right?
Him: Yes, his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity just came out in 1971.
Me: Just came…? Hmmm… Well, anyway, look where his philosophy led:
Freedom and dignity… are essential to practices in which a person is held responsible for his conduct and given credit for his achievements. A scientific analysis shifts both the responsibility and the achievement to the environment. (Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity)
In order to preserve his view of man as a randomly assembled machine, Skinner is prepared to throw out everything that we think of as making us distinctively human. Hasn’t it occurred to you that tossing God out of our worldview has led to a view of life that is unlivable? You can talk about beautiful despair all you want, but the Christian worldview does not bow in inevitability to despair but decisively answers it: man can know, and his life has a purpose. Have you never felt that you would like an answer to these beautiful, artistic statements of despair?
Him: I ought to tell you to get lost, but there is something about this place that makes me want to be honest with you, almost as if you are the one person it is most important I not lie to… strange. Anyway, I do have to admit some odd behavior on my part recently. For the past several summers, I have been going to summer picnic meetings with (gasp) a high school church group. I am their resident atheist, and I take every opportunity to show them what I think of Christianity. What I have been wondering about is why I kept going. I am almost afraid to admit it, but the fact is, I kept going because those kids have something I don’t have: they have a meaningful center to their lives. They read C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and then they talk about what those books mean as if it mattered.
Me: I know just what you mean. So listen, we’ve talked about the Christian worldview as providing the only adequate basis for knowledge and meaning. What about morality?
Him: I think you have been reading my mind. (How could that be?) In school we had to read The Brother’s Karamazov. A theme that comes up a lot in that book is that if there is no God, then everything is lawful. When I read that, I got so mad I threw the book across the room. That can’t be true!
Me: I am encouraged that you haven’t tried to deny right and wrong; you just don’t know how to explain it. Modern naturalism is busy trying to fit the round peg of personal morality into the square hole of an impersonal universe. Once again, the Christian worldview has an answer that your worldview does not. If you doubt that the mindset of the modern man is lost on this issue, just look around.
Him: Let’s change the subject here. You make it sound as if Christianity were a perfectly plausible alternative to the way I look at the world now. But who can believe this supernatural stuff now? Science has showed a new way of looking at the world that doesn’t need supernatural explanations. Miracles don’t happen. Man came about through evolution. These things are facts, and a modern thinking person can’t believe in magic anymore.
Me: Science has shown that the supernatural cannot happen? How did it do that? It is true that modern science is uninterested in God as the source of anything. But it did not (and could not) empirically demonstrate His irrelevance. What the modern naturalistic scientist has done is replace one set of religious assumptions with another. The evidence from nature does not compel the scientist to embrace naturalism; indeed, he evaluates the evidence from nature based on his naturalistic religious assumptions.
Him: This “Christian worldview” you talk about comes from the Bible, right? Why should I have any confidence in it? I have been looking through the Bible, and I have found a lot of things that don’t add up. For example, I found Paul saying that we are justified by faith and not works, while James says that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. If the Bible cannot get its story straight on such an important issue, why should I have any confidence in it?
Me: You have a good point. But I have two things to say. First of all, this is not an issue that has gone unnoticed. Let’s go all the way back to the Reformation. Luther and Calvin saw the solution (in part) in different definitions of “justified”; Melancthon saw the solution in distinguishing between meritorious and non-meritorious works. Have you considered their explanations? Secondly, does skimming through a book to point out apparent contradictions really have intellectual integrity? If you read any serious and difficult book, apparent contradictions can arise. The question is whether you have read carefully enough to really understand what the authors are doing. My contention is that the biblical message has such congruence with our situation as rational, moral, personal, meaningful beings that it commends itself as worthy of belief. At that point, then, we recognize that some parts of it are more difficult to understand than others. Doesn’t it make sense that we would humbly try to understand those harder parts without immediately discarding the whole book? I can, in fact, report that I have thought about the Paul/James problem quite a bit, and I have come to believe that they do not contradict each other at all. I will not explain my conclusions now, but I find them very convincing, and for some reason I think you will one day find them convincing, as well.
Him: Well, tell me: what’s the bottom line? What is the Bible saying?
Me: It’s saying something that you ought to find very believable. You are here because God, who is all-powerful, personal, rational, good, and merciful, has created you to be in His image. As you know, however, you and everyone else have turned away from that God and filled your life with selfishness and foolishness. You have failed to love and obey God as you should, and you have failed to do right by your fellow man. By rights God should toss you on the garbage heap of history, but instead He has reached out to you through Jesus Christ to rescue you from your own guilt and your own evil. Jesus came to be your teacher, your rescuer, and ultimately your ruler forever, bringing you life instead of death and a heart filled with goodness instead of evil. The question is… will you believe it?
Him: … I’ll have to think about it.
And with this the scene faded, and I awoke to find myself staring into the mirror at an aged but familiar face.
Copyright April 2006 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.