Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 13)

[Series explanation and index here.]

The Resurrection of Christ
a talk by R.C. Sproul, Senior

"If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is an exercise in futility. I'm wasting my breath. I'm wasting my time. We're all here wasting our time at a conference like this, if Christ has not been raised."
Sproul says Christians should be pitied if Christianity is false, because they would be refraining from much of the fun in life for the sake of false hopes. It's not so simple as that. Consider a typical Mormon who gives up the carnal pleasure of drinking coffee. She probably also gains a lot in terms of emotional support from her religious community. We tend to take the things we have for granted, so she may think, "If only I were free from my religion so I could drink coffee. How great that would be!" But even if her religion is false, she may actually be benefitting more from it than she would from drinking coffee instead.

This is why I don't have a life-goal of convincing all Christians that their religion is false; I believe many of them are better off believing something false than losing their support system.

However, there are three types of Christians to whom I do want to show the faults of Christian belief.

First, a Christian whose life is worse off for believing Christianity is true. This would include homosexual Christians who are put through shame and self-hatred for no good reason. It would also include Christians, like my former self, who were deeply troubled by the doctrine of eternal Hell for others. I didn't have any loved ones die outside the faith, but that would be an especially painful situation for true believers in damnation.

Second, a Christian who is more interested in truth than the benefits of religion. I don't mean: interested in showing that their own religion is true. That's common. I mean the kind of Christian who is interested in knowing what is true, even if that doesn't turn out to be Christianity.

Third, a Christian who is making the lives of others significantly worse because of that Christian's religious beliefs. This would include parents like the Catholic man I overheard saying, "If one of my sons ever says he's gay, I will beat that f----- half to death." I sincerely hope none of his sons do turn out to be gay, but only because it would be hard on them with a parent like that. I also want Christianity to be challenged in the public square, to keep it — and all other religious positions — a matter of individual conscience rather than government policy.
"[O]ur beloved ones, our husbands, our wives, our children, our parents who have died, our friends who have died in the faith have perished. That's the grim reality if there is no resurrection from the dead."
Death is grim. No doubt about that. But Sproul teaches something much worse: unending torment for billions of other people. There's no "good news" in a narrow path to life and a wide path to destruction, unless the destruction spoken of is the bodily death we already expect.


It would be easy at this point to paint Sproul as someone primarily interested in benefits rather than truth, but he does change tack a bit toward the end. He cites messianic prophecy from the Old Testament and claims of witnessing a resurrected Jesus in the New Testament as reasons to believe Christianity is true in the first place.

I used to agree about messianic prophecy. Now I see it as a deep dishonesty from the beginning of Christianity. I believe early Christians searched the scriptures for any justification for maintaining that Jesus did not fail when he died, and tweaked both the details of his life and the original meaning of Jewish scriptures to construct new theologies of success. They transformed an apocalyptic preacher into God himself, and invited other nationalities to sign on for this new monotheistic craze which promised so much.

But is it true? Those who ask this question today and are prepared to follow the evidence will find more reason to reject than accept Christian claims. Still, not every form of Christianity can be proven wrong on its own terms. Calvinists, for example, claim no one is mentally capable of seeing the truth except a chosen few. Convenient. Most Christians probably believe the evidence is out there for everyone, just as God's invitation is out there for everyone. Why don't they doubt if the evidence is shoddy? Unfortunately, a lot of them seem to believe the case for Christianity is solid just because someone wrote a book with that title. And many of them simply aren't interested in the question; Christianity is their unquestioned way of life.

I hope this series has been helpful. It was actually quite easy to write, since these are things I've spent many hours agonizing about in the past. Feel free to challenge me on whatever you like. Or, if you must, feel free to express agreement. I can deal with that too!


  1. Though I'm a Christian, I've agreed (or at least sympathised) which much you've written in this series. Popular apologetics can be frustratingly shallow (but then, the same can be said for popular works in many fields).

    Are there any Christian apologists you do think present a sophisticated (if not persuasive) defence of Christianity?

  2. Martin,

    I think the best sort of contemporary apologist operates in the spirit Glenn Peoples does (not necessary at his academic level or sense of taste though). I mean: being the sort of person who focuses first on understanding the issues and explaining them to others, who doesn't latch onto the first solution that comes to mind and defend it to the death, and isn't afraid of revealing less than certainty on every topic.

    It wasn't just the answers given by popular apologetics books that I found lacking, it was these awful answers combined with such gusto in pronouncing them. I included the long Augustine quote in Part 6 of this series because it was such a stark contrast to the way multiple speakers staked out Young Earth Creationism as a non-negotiable truth revealed by God. I didn't emphasize it much, but there were also implications that any 'Christians' who doubt are not regenerated and don't truly believe or accept God. I don't want or expect apologists to hide in-house disagreements, but claiming a traditional faith while throwing everyone else in the tradition overboard comes off badly.

    In Part 4 of this series, Sproul mentioned Justin Martyr's explanation of the Christian faith in the face of false rumors. That sort of thing is great. Clarifying Christian beliefs and defending against overreaches by skeptics are where apologists are strong. Early Plantinga was usually like this, and I respect him a good deal for it. Heck, I tend to be ill received on skeptical forums and blogs because I end up defending Christians against those overreaches and misconceptions myself. It's when apologists go on the offensive that they tend to overreach themselves. Plantinga's evolutionary and moral arguments against naturalism are, I believe, an overreach…but not nearly to the ridiculous extent of McDowell or Strobel's best sellers. Craig is kind of a middle ground. He can make some good points; I just wish he'd lay off the demonization and psych tricks. I haven't read enough Moreland or Swinburne to judge well, but they seem more decent than most from the little I have read.

    Toward the end, I really tried to be a Christian who started with the idea that God is loving and sifted through theology from there. I liked George MacDonald's novel "Lilith, A Romance" because it painted a beautiful picture of a God who doesn't give up on people. I eventually felt too much like I was hoping for a better religion than what was really on offer, but I'm still a lot more sympathetic with apologists who at least struggle with eternal torment doctrine.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Garren.

    I can relate in some ways. I do struggle to see eye-to-eye with apologists who think Christianity is an obvious done deal. My Christian life is one that has plenty of doubt (though I'm sure my personality has a lot to do with that). Nowadays I feel a little disconnected from "apologetics" as such. The questions and concerns I have about my faith aren't really the sort that are being addressed much.

    Anywizzle, I appreciate the fact that you manage to sympathise with apologists while disagreeing with them. It makes the thoughts you share both more fair-minded and also just more pleasant to read.