by C Michael PattonDecember 27th, 2011 51 Comments
I see myself as an evangelical (lower case) Christian (uppercase) apologist. I think every Christian is an apologist to some degree. No, not a “professional apologist” like Rob Bowman, William Lane Craig, or Mike Licona, but we all have formulated some degree of warrant or justification for our faith. Just like everyone is a theologian, every one is also an apologist. But this does not mean that we are good apologists!
Normally apologetics is a theological discipline which seeks to defend the faith to those who are outside our belief system. However, my fascination with apologetics is very personal. It starts with me and often ends with me. What do I mean? I suppose I mean that I engage in apologetics very selfishly. I seek to defend the faith to myself. I am continually wrestling with issues of faith and doubt that are spinning webs in my mind. Therefore, whenever I write about a topic that is docked in apologetics bay, it is normally a subject that I am either currently wrestling with or have wrestled with in the past. I often envy those who just believe. Sometimes I wish that I could flip a switch and turn the critical part of my brain off. It would allow me to get more sleep, that is for sure!
Don’t get me wrong. Most of the big issues (what Paul Copan just called the “main things”) are pretty well settled in my thinking. I have the battle scars to prove it. However, there are a lot of things that I am not settled on…secondary issues, mainly. For those things I have yet to wrestle with in a significant way, I usually put a place holder sign on the door entitled ”I will get to you later” or “what he believes.” I have a few people in my life whom I respect and trust so deeply that their view of an issue is enough for me. In such cases I am content with “referred belief.” Why? Because I will never be able to become an expert in everything. As a matter of fact, there will be very few things that I will ever be able to speak about with much personal authority. And there is just enough postmodern blood in me to realize that the human aspiration for exhaustive and authoritative knowledge on any one thing is simply self-deception. None of us are really “experts” on much. None of us are that smart. We never will be. I don’t care how many PhDs someone has, how many articles they have writen, or what school they teach at, the human capacity to truly understand what we are talking about is not anything to write home about. We are finite. However, this does not mean we throw in the intellectual towel. There are things about which we can have a great degree of assurance.
My personal apologetics normally takes a few steps that asks some very basic questions. While I believe that these steps can and should benefit everyone, I know that each of us comes to our faith in very nuanced ways. Your reasons for your faith may not parallel my reasons. But that is okay. Here are the big issues that I start with when my faith is stumbling:
1. Does God exist?
2. Has he communicated to us?
3. What has he said?
The personal avenue that I take (from an intellectual standpoint) when it comes to my Christianity breaks this down and looks at four things:
1. The existence of God
2. The reliability of the New Testament
3. The resurrection of Christ
4. The deity of Christ
1. The Existence of God
A transcendent and personal being is necessary to explain existence as we see it. Something does not come from nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit, or “out of nothing, nothing comes”). Since something exists, a transcendent force is necessary to explain this something. At this point I call God a “force” since we have yet to establish personality. This force must be above and beyond time, space, and matter. If he were not, we would be left with the regression of trying to explain what created the force that created us, ad infinitum. You know, the “If God made everything, what made God?” argument. However, if something exists, there must be an ultimate explanation. Call this force the “unmoved mover,” the “undesigned designer,” or the “uncaused cause.” Whatever one names it, it has to be a se (Latin “of itself”) and transcendent to all the laws of nature so as to avoid the cause and effect relationship. Being outside of time, this force does not need an explanation, but is itself the explanation for all things. For me to deny such a force is completely irrational. A universe such as ours without a creator is as illogical as a four-sided triangle. It just cannot be.
This transcendent force must be personal for two reasons: 1) Personality/consciousness/self-awareness cannot come from non-personality. Being cannot come from non-being. Since mankind has personality/consciousness/self-awareness, that from which we came must share the same attributes (though to an infinitely greater degree). 2) Creation itself demands an act of the will. If this creative force did not have a will (an essential component of personality), creation would never have had a time when it came into existence. In other words, creation would have never been created or it would have always been being created. Those are the only two options. Why? Because there is no cause and effect relationship which, at some point in the finite past, could have compelled a force without a will or personality to create. Why create now rather than ten trillion years ago? Therefore, creation must have been a willful act sometime in the finite past. So we have a creator who is a being whose existence and personhood are both warranted and necessary. This is why we sometimes call God the “Necessary Being.” God, as I am speaking of him now, is not “that which we worship or give ultimate allegiance to,” but the necessary explanation for all of existence. Due to this, God must be one in essence. If his ontology (essential being or “stuff”) consisted of a plurality, then his essence would demand a transcendent explanation for its existence.
There. I have one God. But I don’t yet have the Christian God.
2. Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts
If God exists, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that God has communicated to his creation. At this point, I look into human history to see if there is any evidence that this creator God has communicated with mankind. Of course, communication neither adds anything to, nor takes anything away from, the necessary existence of this transcendent being. Neither does the way he decides to communicate or how often this communication comes. All I am saying is that if God exists, then we have good reason to look for and, if necessary, excavate this communication.
First, I believe that God’s creation itself communicates information about God. I think there is much knowledge we can gain about God’s personality through creation (God is great, smart, powerful, and organized) and our conscious (God is moral, righteous, and possesses endearing emotions). However, this communication is not very specific and leaves some serious questions unanswered such as, “Why are we here?”, “Is there purpose?”, and “Is there something for us beyond this life?”
Christianity claims that God has communicated in history. Christianity is the only religion whose basic foundation is built on falsifiable historical events that communicate a specific and compelling message. Therefore, when I look across the spectrum of religious claims to “God knowledge,” I don’t find much worth pursuing in other religions. Most other religions claim communication from God coming very obscurely through individuals who have private dreams, angelic encounters, and/or ideas. I am entirely too skeptical to take seriously such subjective claims. They are too easily made up or mistaken and are not testable in any way. However, Christianity has foundational truth claims that are rooted in history. The main events which establish or demolish the Christian faith are claimed to have actually happened in history, in the public eye. Therefore, Christianity not only allows for but demands a historical approach to establish its warrant.
I have used these graphics before, but I think they contain the essence of what I mean.
The central historic events that I look to are the life, death, and resurrection of a man named Jesus from Nazareth. If the stories told about him (most importantly, the story about his resurrection) prove to be true, then I have good reason to believe that God has communicated most directly though him.
But in order to get to Jesus, I have to go through the source documents which tell the Jesus story. We call this the New Testament canon. Now when I am trying to establish my faith, there is no reason to call these documents the “New Testament.” That name carries too much religious baggage. It is best for me to look at these as twenty-seven independent (to some degree) source documents. While theologically, I believe these documents are the inspired, inerrant word of God, all I need right now is for them to be generally reliable historic documents.
The most important of these twenty-seven documents are those we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the Gospels). We have enough manuscript evidence to date these documents fairly early, at least in the first century and less than a generation from when the Jesus story took place. This, along with the other documents of the New Testament and the writings of other Christians in the first century, allow me to be assured that these documents are close enough to the events they describe to be taken seriously.
3. The Resurrection of Jesus
From an apologetics standpoint, the most significant event to which these documents attest is the resurrection of Jesus. They claim that Jesus had a short ministry which ended when he was executed on a cross. While they speak of many of his miracles and give much attestation to his teaching, they all claim that shortly after his death he rose from the gave. This resurrection vindicated his claims to have communication from God.
Again, this is very significant. If they only claimed that he was a man of profound teaching and performed some miracles, I don’t think I would explore Jesus much further, much less devote my life to him. His resurrection is central to my faith. It not only establishes what he said to be true, but it creates purpose, destiny, and hope. My connection to God does not end with the resurrection, but it starts there and is intrinsically tied to it. All my theological dominoes fall from here.
Now, there are certain things that I would look for and expect if the resurrection of Christ actually took place. I will only name a few for the sake of brevity. I would look for evidence of historicity in the accounts which tell of this event, not the least of which an explicit or implicit claim to historicity (as opposed to myth or parable). Historic verification can come in many ways, but for an event of this magnitude (the omnipotent God sending his Son into the world so that many may believe in him and have eternal life) you would not expect these things to be done in secret. Therefore, I am encouraged to believe more when I see details like specific times, dates, places, and people provided. These details give the events in question falsifiability, by placing the events in historical settings. If everything happened in one man’s living room, a cave, or an unknown city, they would be nearly impossible to verify. But these documents tell of a public ministry, public death, and public resurrection. What I mean by “public” resurrection is that it is stated that Christ’s tomb was empty and that he subsequently appeared to many followers, showing himself alive.
I am also encouraged by the historical nature of the narratives themselves. The four Gospels tell the same story, with some variations. These variations never disturb the main events, but complement each other in many ways. As well, there are many internal marks of historicity in the documents themselves. Some were written to specific groups of people. Some to individuals. Luke wrote his account to an otherwise obscure man named Theophilus. They contain just enough incidental details to make it harder to believe someone (or four someones) made the story up.
As well, there is no discernible profitable motive for someone to make up such a story in the first-century world. The crucified-messiah-rose-from-the-grave story is not the type of event one would fabricate, for it held no appeal for the Jews or Greeks. The Jews could not fathom a messiah hung on a tree, much less that same messiah telling his followers to spread his message to the Greeks. And the furthest thing from the aspirations of the Greeks was the resurrection of the body. It was the last story anyone would make up in that culture.
As well, the Gospels themselves did not identify their writers. If the writers were making this story up, why not fabricate a credible source? Why leave it blank? Falsely attributing a writing to another, more credible, source was on par for the culture of the day (pseudoepigrapha). Who would be more credible than the apostles of Christ? Yet the Gospels remained nameless (though early witnesses support the traditional view of authorship). Simply put, it is very hard to find evidence or rationale, internal or external, for the Jesus story to have been made up.
Finally, if the resurrection happened in the way these documents claim, one would expect there to be a tidal wave of impact. If all we had were these documents, without any immediate and lasting historical consequences, it would be hard to believe that a omnipotent sovereign God had intervened in history through the Jesus story. One would expect the resurrection event to immediately begin to evidence itself through the message being spread. And this is exactly what we find. Starting immediately after the resurrection, the “church” Jesus began through his resurrection has impacted the world in a significant way. People, cities, cultures, and eventually an empire were changed within just a few centuries after this event.
Could there be more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Definitely. Jesus could miraculously appear to every individual ever born since then and show them his raised body. However, what we have is exactly what I would expect to have if Christ rose from the grave and then ascended into heaven like the documents say. When I examine alternative explanations for the resurrection, I find myself having to take much greater leaps of faith than a simple belief that God raised Christ from the dead. I have often said that when I begin to doubt the resurrection of Jesus all I have to do is read detractors’ alternative theories.
For this reason, I believe that God has communicated to us through Jesus Christ.
4. The Deity of Jesus
Finally, what did Christ say about God? The first three are significant apologetically to convince me that God not only exists, but has communicated to us most definitely through his “Son.” But now I must establish what that Son has communicated. First and foremost, Jesus communicated about Jesus. In the first century, Jesus became the central figure of the universe. Before this, we did not even know that God had a “Son.” Even now, we stumble to understand exactly what this means. Christ himself said that there is only one God (Mark 12:29). Yet both by his words and his works, Christ claimed equality and oneness with God. The central message of the Christian faith is that Jesus is Messiah, King, Lord, and Savior.
His unique identity came at his miraculous conception as Mary, his mother, was told by an angel that she would bear a son through the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35). He was given a divine name (Matt. 1:23). Shepherds and wise men worshipped him as a baby (Matt. 2:11). Throughout his childhood, we see that his relationship with God transcended normal human experience. At the inauguration of his ministry, the Father spoke from heaven, informing us of Jesus’ unique identity (Matt. 3:17). Throughout his ministry, he said and did things that evidenced his divine status:
- He forgives sins (Luke 5:23)
- He promises blessings for those who are persecuted because of him (Matt. 5:11)
- He says that he has not come to abolish the Law and Prophets. Could a mere human even suggest that he has? (Matt. 5:17)
- He says that he determines who enters the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 7:21–23)
- He teaches others to give up their lives to follow Him (Matt. 16:25)
- He says that he will repay each person for what they have done (Matt. 16:27–28)
- The basis of judgment will be man’s relationship to him (Matt. 25:31–46)
- He speaks of “his angels” (Matt. 13:41; 16:27; 24:31)
- The only thing the rich young ruler lacks for eternal life is to follow him (Matt. 19:16–21)
- We are commanded to love Christ more than our own families (Matt. 10:37)
- Eternal life depends on belief in Father and in Him (Jn. 17:3)
I agree with C.S. Lewis: these are either the ravings of a madman – or Jesus was God. Even the Holy Spirit does not draw attention to himself, but points to Christ (John 15:26; 16:13–14). At one point, Jesus openly proclaimed himself to be God and the leaders of the day were ready to stone him (John 10:33). The rest of the New Testament is filled with references to Christ’s deity (John 1:1 Jn. 1:1, 18 (not in King James Version), 8:58–59, 10:30–33, 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 2 Thes. 1:12; 1 Tim. 3:15–16; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:3, 8; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15–17, 2:9).
Why did God become man? For one, to communicate God to us (John 1:17; Heb. 1:1-2). What was his message? That he is the center of the universe and that the Uncaused Cause loves us and does not want any of us to be without him. But our sinfulness has separated us from God. For this reason also, God became man and lived a perfect life so that he could be a perfect savior. He is our ransom (Matt. 20:28). He did not come to show us the way to God, but to be the way to God (John 14:6). Eternal life with God is impossible without him. Without Christ, eternal death and judgement are all that await us (John 3:18). But to those who receive (trust in) Christ, he shares his life and glory as he was judged on our behalf (John 1:12). Jesus became man so that we might become children of God.
2 Cor. 5:21
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Jesus Christ is the God-man who takes away our sins and promises eternal life to all who trust in him.
Do I think God could be more clear than this? Of course. Could my faith be stronger than it is? Most certainly. And I hope it continues to grow. I have never heard God speak. I have never seen him with my eyes. I have never died and gone to heaven and come back again. I have never spoken in tongues. I have never even experienced a miracle that could not be explained outside of a belief in Jesus. There are times in my life when I think that the world functions just the way it would if God were not real. Often times I get frustrated with God. I doubt his love and his goodness. There are times when I entertain other worldviews. I have said before that if I were not a Christian, I am fairly certain I would remain a theist (believing in God). More specifically, I would probably be a deist since I don’t think any of the other religious options presented in world history are all that impressive or persuasive. When it comes to the big five parademic worldview options, I think deism (the belief that God created everything and has not communicated or intervened since) is the only option besides theism that is logically possible. As best I can tell, atheism, pantheism, and panentheism are all formally absurd. This means that they are not only less likely, but that they are logically impossible.
Again, this is my trek when I have my doubts. The points I provided above stabilize me. I am not saying they are going to stabilize you in the same way. These four points keep my faith anchored. There is a God. He has communicated. Jesus rose from the dead, demonstrating the truthfulness of his claims. And Jesus is God incarnate (“in the flesh”) who lived a perfect life, making life with God possible to all who put their trust in him.
I could believe more. My faith is not perfect. However, when my faith is challenged, these intellectual benchmarks serve as a powerful immunity to doubt and disbelief. I could believe more. I hope each day that I believe more. Only in eternity will I have my faith fully vindicated. Only in eternity will my faith be perfect. But until then, these four points are sufficient for me not only to be a Christian, but to sacrifice every moment in service to Jesus.
- Worldviews in a Nutshell
- Why is There Something Rather than Nothing? The Only Six Options
- Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?
- Ten Arguments for the Existence of God
- 10 Arguments for God's Existence