Christians of Straw
A Call to Christian Apologetics
Sometime between the years 125 A.D. and 180 A.D. lived an Assyrian-born writer named Lucian of Samosata. Lucian was a satirist who wrote only in Greek, and composed dozens of works ranging from witty satire to rhetorical essays. One of his most notable surviving works is a story known as The Passing of Peregrinus, which describes how that Cynic philosopher committed a number of immoral acts and took advantage of the generosity of Christians before later burning himself alive. Particularly worth mentioning is the fact that it contains criticism of the Christians of the time, and is one of the earliest pagan writings on Christianity and Christians. He describes how the Christians “worship a man…who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account,” going on to describe (in a condescending tone) a number of Christian doctrines. As a result, it is not only one of the earliest references to Christianity, but also one of the earliest criticisms of Christianity.
Since Lucian’s day, this pattern has continued with remarkable consistency. While the critics have changed, many of the arguments and tactics remain the same. Some, like Muslim religious leaders, criticize the New Testament text, asserting that Christians added its supernatural elements much later in history. Others, including the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, criticize the God of both the Old and New Testaments, using different passages of scripture to assert that the God of Christianity is (allegedly) a murderous psychopath who orders the enslavement or destruction of entire races, who degrades women, and who demands absurd ritualistic sacrifices. They do not stop at merely the moral character of the Bible, however. Attacks fly in like arrows from all sides, striking out against the Genesis creation account, the reliability of the New Testament, and the atrocities committed by Christians in the past. Popular atheist and anti-religious websites like godisimaginary.com, created by “How Stuff Works” creator Marshall Brain, purport to host dozens of arguments against the existence of God, and view religion in general as anti-logic, anti-science, and as a retardant to the progress of society. Their conclusion?
“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, perhaps even because of, the lack of evidence.”
Does Dawkins speak for all atheists everywhere? Certainly not, and I know many would adamantly deny that I even associate them with him. But the point remains, some of the harshest critics of Christianity today certainly do agree with Dawkins here, and it is these believers (or non-believers, rather) who represent one of the most vocal groups critical of modern Christianity. They are the Lucians of the 21st century, equipped not only with wit and biting sarcasm but with the technology to publicize it openly. This is not a condemnation of their methods or zeal; after all, they have the right to say and do all this and more (and they have exercised it to the fullest). No, it is not the atheists, or Muslims, but the Christians to whom this post is directed.
How are we as Christians to stand up to these attacks? The time is long past to simply ignore them. Atheists and agnostics may make up only a small proportion of the American population, but they are just as vocal as any majority group and their points demand an answer. Sadly, however, too great a number of Christians has fallen for what I will call “The Great Myth” of the New Atheism. They have accepted the New Atheism’s redefinition faith as belief without evidence and, as a result, are left powerless against a rising wave of dissent, assuming that their beliefs have no grounding in the real world. This is not our only mistake: an increasing focus on emotionalism and paper-thin, feel-good theology in many churches across the nation has left the Christian youth unprepared to respond to the barbs hurled at them by their detractors. Dawkins, Harris and the others are intelligent men from very reputable universities. Beyond that, even, they are masters of rhetoric, and deliver their indictments with an emotional and moral indignation that is admittedly quite impressive. Who is to say they aren’t correct? Perhaps religion is the way of the past, and secular science is the pathway to the future.
Is it the place of Christians to simply sit down and take this criticism without complaint? To steal a phrase from the Apostle James, “My brothers, these things ought not be so.” We have gotten so caught up in having a “childlike faith” that we miss Paul’s exhortation, “do not be children in your thinking…in your thinking be mature,” (1 Cor. 14:20). Paul was willing not only to bring the Gospel to foreign nations but to defend it with all the evidence he could muster. How quickly we fall over ourselves to conform to the former, but not the latter! When pressed to defend ourselves, we fall back on Scripture in order to prove Scripture. We offer flimsy arguments for the existence of God, make fundamental mistakes about scientific terms, and when all else has failed, we retreat back to the age-old debate-ender, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I believe in Jesus because I feel Him in my heart, and that’s that.” Is this the Christianity that has endured against all odds for two millennia? Half-baked sentimental arguments that collapse into emotional hand-waving at the slightest gust of skeptical wind? I’ll go back to James in saying, “this ought not be so!”
The failure of most of modern Christianity to engage properly with the culture of skepticism has indeed tarnished our intellectual reputation among many would-be believers, but thankfully there is a way out. In 1 Peter 3:15, the apostle Peter exhorts us to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” The word “defense” there, in Greek, is apologia, and connotes a defense you would give in a court of law. It is an argument that is structured logically, punctuated by evidence, that is persuasive and rational, yet heartfelt and sure. It is possible to defend Christianity in this way (Paul did it a number of times), and as such that little Greek word lends itself well to the name of that very discipline, “Christian Apologetics.” Modern Christian apologists use the very latest in academic thought: philosophy, cosmology, theology, and archaeology, to name just a few, in order to build a cumulative, persuasive case for the central truths of Christianity. These truths would include the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the reliability of the Bible. Responding to the claims made by Dawkins, Harris, and others are learned men like John Lennox, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Paul Copan, who are unafraid to give a defense of the hope that is within them, precisely because they know how to give that defense. Christianity, throughout its history, has been a faith grounded in reason, in reality, in the assumption that the universe is intelligible. We have strayed from these foundations, but with a little bit of study we can return to the forefront and bring Christianity back into the sphere of intellectual relevance. Apologetics equips the believer, speaks to the skeptic, and encourages people in general to rethink their assumptions about Christianity and its adherents.
Time after time we have let our opponents knock us down flat; we are Christians made of straw, unable to respond to these attacks or support ourselves effectively. But my brothers (and sisters), this ought not be so. And it needn't be. We have the tools and now we see the need, so let’s go out and build what needs to be built, and defend what can and ought to be defended. God may not need anyone to defend Him, but for that doubtful, almost-believer… the one who wants to trust Jesus but thinks there’s no good reason to take the next step? Well, what we have could be exactly what they need, and exactly what the Holy Spirit will use to convict. And that is reason enough for me.
Soli Deo Gloria
(Since I have not posted any updates in quite a while, this can be considered my “return” to this blog, so I figured I would begin with a general introduction. In my next post I plan to discuss certain Christian objections to the practice of apologetics, and after that briefly consider perspectives on the meaning of life).