Saturday, January 25, 2014

Defending Christianity in an Age of Skepticism

The Christian faith is often misunderstood and criticized. Because my faith is important to me, I am learning the discipline of Apologetics to prepare myself to defend it. I recently read a couple of good books on the subject - Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), a former atheist, and The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

The Faith I Defend

At the beginning of Mere Christianity, Lewis noted that the word "Christian" has lost its original meaning.  Today there are people who culturally identify as Christians who do not practice the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Keller points out that the Bible tells us to expect that people will misrepresent the faith and even tells us how to discern this. So to be clear, my defense of Christianity is a defense of the faith of those of us who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, have repented of our sins, and have chosen to follow him. This not a defense of religious fanatics or of people who are Christians in name only, though you may certainly describe me as a Jesus freak if you wish.

The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. – Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

Human Morality

C.S. Lewis used human morality to make his case for God’s existence. Moral arguments were woven throughout Keller's book as well. As both authors admitted, science can't prove that God exists. In Mere Christianity, there are several assertions about human morality, which I have listed below: 
  1. People agree that there are moral laws or rules of behavior we ought to live by.
  2. The rules of behavior tell us what we ought to do or what we should do.
  3. No one actually follows the rules perfectly. We may want to, but we can't.
  4. When we fail to follow the rules of moral behavior, we make excuses for ourselves. 
  5. We evaluate rules of morality by saying some moral laws are higher than others.
  6. Sometimes moral obligations conflict with other moral rules or with our other instincts, e.g. with our instinct for self-preservation.
  7. Our consciences weigh the rules so we can make the best moral choice.
  8. The best moral choice isn't necessarily the one that is in our own interest. The most moral choice may not be useful or convenient. 

Moral obligation is a belief that some things ought not to be done regardless of how a person feels about them within herself, regardless of what the rest of her community and culture says, and regardless of whether it is in her self-interest or not. – Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

Lewis acknowledged that some people believe moral laws are determined by one's culture. However, there are rules of human behavior common to all cultures - you should not steal, you should be fair, etc. Critics also claim that morality is relative to the individual - if something feels right to me, it is moral. Yet even these people complain when someone wrongs them. There would be no point in arguing about what is right or wrong if we did not have common beliefs about morality. We would not make excuses for our own moral failings if we didn't agree that there are rules of behavior that we all should follow. 

Furthermore, if morality is relative, then any individual or culture can say that rape or incest or torture are moral. Yet we know that these behaviors are objectively wrong. Other apologists have argued that relativism leads to nihilism. If there is no god, there is no objective moral authority. Every moral question becomes the question "Says who?"

I believe that we can only accept a moral obligation as objective, as a rule that we all ought to follow, if the highest moral authority establishes it. Not only that, the authority figure must be completely above reproach. Most of us don’t mindlessly submit to the rules that define moral behavior.  Generally speaking, we have the free will to choose how to behave. We learn and practice what it means to be a decent human being - that we shouldn't be selfish, for example.

Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. - CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

So how is human morality evidence of God? Well, you can take the non-religious, naturalistic view and say that the universe and all life forms were caused by natural forces and that humans evolved from a simpler life form into complex beings based on evolution and natural selection. Or you can take the religious view (not just the Christian view) that says that the universe and life were created by an intelligent force, a power with a purpose.

Lewis noted that if there is a controlling power outside our universe, it could show itself as one of the observable facts, as an influence to behave a certain way. He also said that if this power behind the moral law is interested in morally right behavior, then it follows that it would not approve of wrong behavior.

To explain the origin of morality in the absence of a god, you must either believe that morality is a creation of the human mind or that morality is a characteristic that was passed on through natural, evolutionary processes (i.e. the natural selection theory). It seems to me that there have been plenty of selfish, ruthless people throughout history who have been “fit” enough to survive and pass their genes on to mankind. Morality doesn’t seem to be naturally selected or to have an evolutionary purpose for survival.

The Christian View of the Moral Argument

Christians believe that God is the intelligent, supreme power behind our universe. We believe that God created us in his image as intelligent, creative beings with the free will to choose. We believe we were designed to live in mutually beneficial relationships with other people and with God, our creator. We believe that because man disobeyed God, sin was introduced to the world. We believe that our disobedience has consequences – physical death and eternal separation from God. 

It seems to me that there are a few things that the non-religious and Christian views of morality have in common. One, we agree that human beings are special (among the life forms we know about) having intelligence, creativity, the capacity for love, etc. Each of us is unique - unique DNA, unique experiences, unique personalities and talents. We see beauty in that individuality and want to be loved and valued for who we are as individuals. Second, we believe that human beings have the ability, even the right, to choose our own way in this life. We want to pursue the things that make us happy based on our own preferences and perceptions. Third, we agree that humans do not behave the way we collectively think we ought to behave.

We have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be. We have a sense that we are very flawed and yet very great. We have a longing for love and beauty that nothing in this world can fulfill.  We have a deep need to know meaning and purpose. Which worldview best accounts for these things? - Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

The Great Teacher, Emmanuel “God with Us”

Compass Plant
Christians believe that God loves his creation so much that he came to earth in human form to redeem us - as a Son of Man.  Christians believe that Christ was the perfect embodiment of human morality because he is one with God, the author of morality. Yet Jesus did not cling to his equality with God to avoid pain and death; he submitted himself to God's plan for human redemption.

During his ministry on Earth, Jesus taught his followers several things about moral law. He taught that we should show love and mercy towards one another, forgive one another, avoid anger and hatred, and live in peace. He taught that we should take care of the least among us. He was not impressed with outward appearances of piety but was instead concerned with what is in our hearts. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.

Any genuine Christian will tell you, it is not easy to follow Christ's moral example. He taught that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He said that we should not judge other people. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. He taught that we should be humble and have the heart of a servant. We should be willing to give up everything to follow him.

There are a lot of rules in the Bible about how we should behave, yet when asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus said:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The Internal Struggle

You certainly don’t have to be a Christian to understand the second greatest commandment, commonly known as the golden rule. If you have empathy, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see how mutually beneficial it is to treat other people the way you want to be treated.

The commandment that Jesus called first and most important is much harder to accept and follow. We don’t want to submit to someone else’s will; we want to find our own way in life. We make our desires for achievement, wealth, relationships, pleasure, status, power, social approval, etc. so important that there isn’t room for God. So to the Christian, sin isn’t just breaking the rules of moral behavior. It is making something other than God central to your sense of self, to your desire to prove your own worth. Our self-centered nature leads to the personal, internal struggle to tame the thoughts, imaginings, emotions, desires and longings of the heart.

Lewis called pride the greatest sin. He said that pride is “essentially competitive” because it causes us to compare ourselves to other people as we strive to be richer, better looking, smarter, more something. In God, we find the one who is greater than us in every way. It takes humility to admit this. Christianity is not an exclusive club. Becoming a Christian is as simple as confessing your sins and believing that Jesus Christ died for you. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Sweet Surrender

I believe in gravity, the powerful force that keeps me physically grounded. I can't see it but I know it's there.  I believe in another powerful force that keeps me morally and spiritually grounded. I can't see God but I know He is here. He reveals Himself to me not only in the wondrous natural world I see, but also in love, mercy, and forgiveness and the witness of people whose lives have been transformed by his power. I am redeemedGiving up on the never-ending struggle to prove yourself worthy of the world's love frees you to accept God's love, a love that is more powerful than any other. 

If there is no God, then moral choices are meaningless. People make up their own rules to suit their own desires when the best moral choice is too inconvenient or restrictive. We don't universally accept the authority of other people to hand down moral rules. Their authority doesn't pass the "Sez who" test - God's does. 



  1. There are three main reasons people attack Christianity.
    1 - There are those who look at Christians and decide they don't want to be like us or at least like those they associate with as being Christian. One of the common themes my former priest preached was 'seeing Christ in one another, and being Christ for one another'. None of us are perfect, but to the best of our ability we should lead our lives in such a way that if others find out that we are Christians we won't repel them from Christ. There's a famous saying attributed to Saint Francis, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." And hopefully someday, for someone, we'll be the loving face of Christ for someone else.
    2 - There are those who deny the existence of the historical Christ. I've read comparisons of Jesus to Santa, the Easter Bunny, or Sasquatch, just another fictional character. And their point is that there is no historical record of Jesus from the time he was alive, only the gospel accounts written 30-60 years after his death. Now we live in a time of photographs and written historical records, but how many of us imagine that a mere 300-400 years from now anyone will have heard of us? Yet some insist that for Jesus to be real, we need to find writen records of him 1900 years later. And there is the argument that the Gospels are fiction. Yet who among us has read a work of contemporary fiction so convincing that we'd not only believe the main character real, but so compelling that we'd be willing to die for them? Yet we're expected to believe that four writers wrote independent accounts about one fictional character so convincingly that 1900 years later people are still fooled into dedicating their lives to him. I can imagine doubts about Jesus' divinity.... but not his existence.
    3 - There are those who believe there is no god, Christian or otherwise. Now I'm a believer in the Big Bang and in evolution, yet also a believer in God the Creator, but I do recognize that there are other choices. And I believe the possibilities are three:
    a) That God has always existed and that the pre-existent God created the universe.
    b) That matter has always existed and creation never took place, that the matter we see was always there, just in a different form.
    c) That nothing existed. And then suddenly it did, being created from nothing, by nothing.
    Now none of these possibilities can be proven or disproven, but of them all I'd say I find 'c' least likely.
    Non-believers will tell you that the only reason we believe in God is that we've all been taught about him by our parents. And that is a possibility. I was taught about God by my parents. And they were taught about Him by their parents. And they were taught by their parents, And by their parents. And by their parents. But eventually you run out of parents. and the question becomes, how did our remote ancestors come up with the concept of a god. Because it seems built into so many of us, this need and desire for a higher power. And I don't see how it could be a product of evolution.

    1. Timothy Keller discussed some other reasons why people don't believe in God - a big one is the existence of evil and the question of why bad things happen to good people or why a good God would punish people. I would agree that I was more open to belief as a child and that is when I became a believer. But as an adult, I have spent hours and hours reading and reflecting about all the questions and I just can't make that leap of faith that life in all its complexity and precision came from random, evolutionary forces.