Why Believe? A Reasoned Approach to the Christian Faith

WhyBelieve

Chapter 1. Introduction

“What is this babbler trying to say?” – Acts 17:18

“Why believe that Christianity is true?” It’s the kind of question that fuels late-night arguments in college common rooms, awkward silences at holiday dinners, and Internet comment threads that make you vow to never again read Internet comment threads.  When discussion wanders into the area of religion, otherwise calm and sensible people seem to lose their ability to think rationally or to use lowercase letters.

Even worse, human history is filled with religious violence, leading many people to believe that assertions of religious truth inevitably lead to bloodshed.  When Ghandi was asked in an interview why people should avoid urging others to change their religion, he responded “Proselytization will mean no peace in the world.”[1]  Those who hold this view often argue that religious truth claims should be discouraged for pragmatic reasons.  While private religious beliefs are acceptable, we should not publically insist that they are objectively true.  How can we truly love and accept other people while claiming that their deeply held beliefs are wrong?

Other people are apathetic towards religion.  Why should they bother with the claims of Christianity if they can live happy, compassionate, spiritual lives without it?  And what if we see Christianity as outdated and irrelevant?  It may have served some purpose in the past, but it has nothing of interest to say to scientific, modern people.  It provides dubious solutions to problems that no one cares about.  Worse, it turns people into mindless, dull automatons or angry moralists.  Should we really take it seriously?

Setting aside practical concerns, there are also philosophical objections to the claim that one particular religion is true.  For example, some people believe that all religions are essentially the same.  If that’s the case, there’s no need to ask whether Christianity is true; Christianity is true along with every other religion. Others believe that religious claims aren’t within the domain of objective truth: religious beliefs are personal, subjective preferences.  Arguing that your religion is objectively true for everyone is as silly as arguing that your favorite brand of mayonnaise ought to be everyone’s favorite brand of mayonnaise.

Growing up in a very loving but not particularly religious home, I had many of these same objections.  Although I believed in God, I couldn’t accept the idea that one particular religion was true.  When I arrived at college as a freshman, I might have called myself a Christian in some vague cultural sense, but only because Jesus’ moral example was more familiar to me than that of any other religious figure.  I certainly wasn’t one of those crazy fundamentalists who thumps their Bible, attends church each week, goes to prayer meetings, walks around humming worship music, and writes books about how Christianity is true.  Since, apparently, I do all of those things today (minus the worship music), what changed?  A few things come to mind.

During my second year in college, a Christian group on campus set up a table in front of our dining hall.  I had planned to pass by with an air of smug superiority, but my disdain turned into disbelief when I realized that they were passing out free books: the Bible (naturally) and two others by C.S. Lewis, whom I recognized as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, a series that I had loved as a child.  After verifying that I wasn’t being asked to sign up for anything, I ignored the Bible, snatched up Lewis’ works, and disappeared into the dining hall, not realizing that I’d woefully underestimated God’s subtlety.

The two books were Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. I found Mere Christianity, a collection of radio lectures delivered by Lewis on the BBC during WWII, moderately interesting.  But The Screwtape Letters was riveting.  The novel took the form of a series of letters written from a senior demon in Hell to his inexperienced and incompetent protégé on Earth, containing instructions for the successful tempting of a human ‘patient.’  Although it was an interesting premise and was suffused with Lewis’ characteristic humor and creativity, what floored me was its insight into my own life.  When Screwtape described the patient’s pride, his sense of superiority, his posturing, his insincerity, and the fears and temptations that he struggled to hide, he was describing me.  I read the book and re-read it and re-re-read it and asked “How can Lewis know what’s going on in my head?”

The next incident which challenged my ideas about Christianity was meeting my future wife, Christina.  As chemistry majors, our paths had crossed on occasion, but I knew her primarily as the student who had received the highest grade in our much-dreaded sophomore-level Organic Chemistry course – as a freshman.  She was brilliant.   What surprised me, though, was how little she seemed to care whether other people thought she was brilliant.  Of course, I pretended not to care about whether other people thought I was brilliant.  But I did care.  Immensely.

Most of my identity, maybe all of my identity, was wrapped up in being better than other people: better at academics, better at music, better at sports.  At a place like Princeton, even given my prodigious talent for self-deception, it was impossible to pretend that I was the best at nearly anything. So I had a back-up plan.  When I met someone who was undeniably better than me in every category, I fell back on my spirituality, which was my last resort when all else failed. No matter how smart, athletic, or talented the competition, I could cling to the idea that I was a good, moral, spiritual person.

In contrast, Christina really didn’t seem to think about herself very much.  Here was a woman who was beautiful, funny, intelligent, and successful but who didn’t seem to regard these things as the essence of who she was.  She was also an evangelical Christian.  “But I can work around that,” I thought to myself.

The final check to my beliefs occurred during our first few months of graduate school at UC-Berkeley.   I was convinced that Christina and I could compromise on the whole “Jesus thing.”   To show her how open-minded I was, I went to church with her.  Unfortunately for me, the pastor of our church in Berkeley had a PhD from Cambridge.  My quantum physics professor, a renowned cosmologist, sang in the choir.  I was surrounded by undergraduates, graduate students, and university professors who were convinced that Jesus was the Son of God and had risen from the dead.  That was a problem.

I had always assumed that Christianity could not possibly be accepted by thoughtful, intelligent people, at least not by people as thoughtful and intelligent as myself. Surely, Christianity was for well-meaning and sometimes not-so-well-meaning people with substandard educations and a streak of intellectual fear bordering on dishonesty. This stereotype functioned as an implicit and impenetrable bulwark against Christian claims.  But suddenly, my defenses began to crumble. I was forced to consider the message of Christianity without dismissing it out-of-hand.

I’ll say a bit more in the final chapter about how I took the final step from uncomfortable uncertainty to belief.  At this point, what’s most interesting to me about these events was how little they had to do with what we normally think of as evidence.  Why?  Probably because I had never rejected Christianity on the basis of evidence in the first place.  My beliefs about morality, religion, and God were largely the unreflective product of ideas I had picked up from my peers, my friends, my parents, books, television, and movies.  I had never questioned my assumptions about the nature of religious truth or engaged with opposing views.  What C.S. Lewis, my future wife, and my church in Berkeley provided was not new evidence but the realization that some of my reasons for ignoring Christianity were highly dubious.

Christianity was not dry, archaic, boring, and irrelevant; it offered a compelling assessment of my own most pressing problems.   It did not turn people into lifeless automatons, angry moralists, or raving lunatics; it animated the life of the person whom I loved and admired the most.  And it was not an opiate for the uneducated masses; it could thrive in the most rigorous academic environments.  Shouldn’t I try to figure out whether it was true?

What about the other questions I posed at the beginning of this chapter: shouldn’t we avoid religious truth claims for the sake of peace? Aren’t all religions equally true?  Can religious claims really be classified as ‘true’ or ‘false’? And why do we even need religion?  Even if we acknowledge that Christianity might, like many religions, include interesting spiritual ideas and even if we recognize that there are kind and intelligent Christians just as there are kind and intelligent atheists, Muslims, and Hindus, aren’t there still good reasons to ignore or deny the claim that it is uniquely true?  Let’s consider each of those objections in turn.

A. Should we avoid religious truth for the sake of peace?

Most people, minus a few cartoon supervillains and a handful of real-life tyrants, prefer peace to war.  But history shows us that competing religious truth claims create tensions that can rapidly turn into marginalization, oppression, and bloodshed.  In his book god is not great, the late journalist Christopher Hitchens devoted an entire chapter to the history of religious violence.[2]  Seeing the potential for sectarian conflict, many people conclude that religious truth claims should be eliminated entirely.  One appeal of this approach is that it appears to be entirely pragmatic.  No judgment is being passed on whether there is one true religion. Perhaps there is; perhaps there isn’t.  The argument is only that we should refrain from making public claims about religious truth in order to promote human flourishing.

In response, it needs to be noted that religion ranks far below other factors as the primary cause of war.  In his article “Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?” in the Huffington Post, Rabbi Alan Lurie notes that of the 1,763 wars listed in the Encyclopedia of Wars “only 123 have been classified to involve a religious cause, accounting for less than 7 percent of all wars and less than 2 percent of all people killed in warfare.”[3]  The death toll of the bloodiest religious conflicts like the Crusades are dwarfed by secular conflicts like World War I or by ideological killings like those that occurred during the Great Leap Forward in China.  Even if we recognize that attributing wars to “religious” or “non-religious” causes can be challenging, we ought to acknowledge that human beings are capable of massacring each other with or without religious motivations.

More importantly, while the assertion that religious claims should be avoided for practical reasons sounds religiously neutral, it actually conceals a deep commitment to a particular religious claim: namely, the claim that the key to long-term peace and human flourishing is not found in one particular religion. Are we sure that this claim is true? After all, if some particular religion is uniquely true, then its truth could have massive implications for human flourishing.  For example, if Buddhism is true, pursuing our desires for temporal happiness will inevitably lead to a cycle of endless frustration and suffering.  To discourage Buddhists from sharing this truth with others would then be seriously detrimental to human flourishing.  Other religions like Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism also make claims that, if true, would radically change how we understand human flourishing and the best way to achieve it.  To insist that we can or should ignore religious truth for the sake of human flourishing is to implicitly insist that none of these religions are true.

In the end, we are led back to our original question: are any religious claims objectively true?  We can discourage public discussion of religion only if we are certain that the answer to this question is ‘no.’ If it’s possible that some religious claims are objectively true, then we must be open to religious debate, just as we’re open to scientific, economic, philosophical, or political debate.

Since an appeal to religious violence can’t sidestep questions of religious truth, we next turn to philosophical objections to religious truth.

B. Are all religions true?

When asked whether Christianity is true, many people respond with eager affirmation: “Sure, Christianity is true because all religions are true!”  This belief is often illustrated by the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant: five blind men are walking through the jungle and stumble upon an elephant. Each of them takes hold of a different part of the animal.  The first blind man grabs his tusk and says “An elephant is hard and pointed, like a spear.”  The second blind man grasps his ear and says “No!  An elephant is soft and flat, like a fan.”  The third blind man, who is holding the elephant’s tail, says “No, you’re both wrong. The elephant is long, thin, and flexible, like a rope.” All five continue arguing until a wise man comes and tells them that they are all holding an elephant. Their statements are all true but each of them has only a portion of the truth.  The moral of this parable is that religious truth is too nuanced and complex to be contained within any one religious tradition.  All religions are true, but none of them is exclusively true.

The most serious problem with this form of religious inclusivism is that it doesn’t take seriously the claims made by actual adherents of different religions.  For example, I occasionally have friendly conversations with conservative Muslims about the comparative reliability of the Qur’an and the Bible.  We are willing to listen to one another, to correct each other’s misunderstandings, and to engage in civil, courteous discussion.  Throughout this process, we are both trying to better understand what the other person believes.  If our dialogue leads us to conclude that we fundamentally disagree on some issue, we can still do so with mutual respect.

In contrast, religious inclusivism must deny the reality of religious disagreement because it accepts as an axiom the idea that different religions agree on all essential issues.  No matter how much a Christian insists that the deity of Jesus is foundational to Christianity and no matter how much a Muslim insists that the deity of Jesus is incompatible with Islam, an inclusivist has no choice but to insist that both the Christian and Muslim are mistaken.  Although I sympathize greatly with the desire to avoid discord, I can’t help but think that honest, loving disagreement is preferable to the insistence that we understand a person’s religious beliefs better than they do.

A similar point is made by a story that I call The Parable of the Blind Men and the Five Inanimate Objects.[4] Five blind men are walking through a museum and stumble across five inanimate objects: a spear, a fan, a rope, a wall, and a tree.  While they argue, a wise man enters the museum and tells them that they are all holding an elephant.  A problem arises when we try to determine which version of the parable is the correct illustration of spiritual reality, the first version or the second version?  In order for the inclusivist to know that the original version of the parable is the correct one, he would have to be speaking from a position of special religious knowledge which all exclusivists lack.  In other words, he would have to say to all religious exclusivists, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, “You are all wrong about the exclusive nature of spiritual reality. My inclusive view of spiritual reality is the correct one.”  When push comes to shove, inclusivism turns out to be just as exclusive as other religious positions.

C. Is all religious truth subjective?

If religious inclusivism can’t avoid the problem of exclusive claims, is there another way to avoid religious conflict?  Yes, there is.  Rather than arguing that all religions are objectively true, we can instead argue that all religions are subjectively true.  In other words, there is no one religion that is objectively true for all people, but each person’s religion is subjectively true for them.  Like religious inclusivism, a belief in religious subjectivism precludes the possibility of conflict between religious claims.  No one thinks that my subjective belief that In-N-Out Burger is the best fast-food restaurant in America is in conflict with someone else’s subjective belief that Five Guys is better.[5]  These are subjective opinions, not objective truth claims.

The difficulty with this view is that some religions really do seem to be making objective truth claims.  For example, Christians believe that Jesus Christ was physically raised from the dead.  To put it as plainly as possible, the Christian claim is that Jesus’ dead body was restored to life three days after he was crucified, leaving his tomb empty.  There seems to be no way to understand this statement except as an objective claim about historical reality.  It may be false or it may be true.  But it is nonsensical to say that the statement “the tomb was empty” is true for me, but that the statement “the tomb contained Jesus’ decomposing corpse” is true for you.[6]

The same objectivity is a necessary element of all the biggest religious questions.  Does God exist?  Did He create the universe out of nothing? Did Moses receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai?  Did the Buddha attain enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree? Did the angel Gabriel visit Mohammad?  Did Jesus rise from the dead?  Are we reincarnated in a different body after we die?  Will there be a Final Judgment? While the conflict-averse among us (myself included) might prefer all of these questions to be mere matters of opinion, they are inescapably propositions about objective reality which are either true or false.

In the end, I don’t think that either religious inclusivism or religious relativism can deliver on its promise of circumventing all religious conflicts.  No matter how much we want to avoid the anger that often comes with exclusive religious claims, we shouldn’t pretend that religious differences don’t exist.  A better approach is to acknowledge that while we may hold different and incompatible religious ideas, we share a common humanity.  Certainly for Christians, Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves demands that we treat them with grace and kindness, whether or not we agree with them.[7]

D. Can we just ignore religion?

Even if religious questions are objectively true or false, do we really need to bother with them? What if we’re not interested in whether one particular religion is true? What if we find that we can live a life of happiness and spirituality without organized religion of any kind?  Let me suggest two reasons that we can’t avoid looking into the truth claims of religion in general and Christianity in particular: the tragedy of human existence and the magnitude of the claims involved.

For billions of people all over the world, life is an unmitigated horror. From some of our own inner cities to the slums of South America to war-ravaged villages in Africa, life for many people is a tragic succession of misery, hunger, loss, and pain. Even in the wealthiest, most isolated suburbs in America, tragedy forces its way into almost everyone’s experience. Most of us will live to see our parents and our friends die. If we personally manage to escape heartbreak, we will almost certainly see others struggle their way through miscarriages, affairs, divorces, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. I know these thoughts are not pleasant. I know we would rather think positive, encouraging thoughts. But this is the world we live in.

Am I claiming that the tragedy of human existence is evidence that God exists? No. I am claiming that the tragedy of human existence absolutely and finally strips us of any claimed right to apathy. Anyone who has honestly and seriously thought about death, who has seen premature infants in the neonatal ward struggling to breathe, who has seen malnourished, barefooted children playing next to open sewers, or who has watched their elderly mother slowly drift into dementia can no longer shrug off religion as a matter of indifference.

Second, the claims of Christianity merit our attention, given their magnitude. Some truths are not very important. If someone claims that there are exactly 135 rocks in my garden or that Nicholas Cage owns a first-edition copy of A Tale of Two Cities, it makes little difference to me whether he is right or not. However, the truth of Christianity is a matter of great importance.  If Christianity is true, then God exists, we owe Him our obedience, we will face His judgment at death, and we have no hope for salvation apart from Jesus Christ.  Yet it is not at all uncommon to hear people say “Christianity might be true or it might not, but it doesn’t really matter to me.”[8]  This stance is irrational.

If your doctor told you that you had stage-4 stomach cancer, imagine her surprise if you declared “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t.  I don’t really care either way.”  Given what’s at stake, apathy is not an option.  The doctor would rightly respond: “Either you don’t truly understand what cancer is, or you do understand and are extremely confident that you don’t have it.  You can’t possibly understand the gravity of this claim and not care about it.”  In the same way, we can reject Christianity as false and then ignore it.  Or we can embrace it as true and drastically change our life in response to it.  What we cannot do is shrug our shoulders, yawn, and feign indifference. As C.S. Lewis said, “Christianity…, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”[9]

I offer this book to both Christians and non-Christians who are interested in Christianity.  It is by no means exhaustive.  Each chapter could be expanded into an entire book or an entire series of books.  For those who would like to explore particular issues in greater depth, the works cited throughout should prove helpful.

The truth of Christianity touches on issues as diverse as ancient history, textual criticism, metaethics, epistemology, and cosmology.  No one can claim expertise in all of those areas and I am certainly no exception.[10] However, I have done my best to read broadly, paying special attention to non-Christian scholars and writers, not because I think that Christians can’t do good scholarship, but because I want to listen closely to voices that my own theological biases tempt me to discount.  I have also tried to present counterarguments to my own claims as even-handedly and charitably as possible, but where I have failed to do so, I hope that readers will extend grace.

This book is organized around four distinct arguments for the truth of Christianity.  Although the chapters follow an overarching logical structure, they can each be read more or less independently of the others. Chapter 2 deals with the question of Jesus’ identity, Chapter 3 with his resurrection, Chapters 4-6 with the existence of God, and Chapters 7-9 with the central message of Christianity.  Readers who are interested in a particular question or who view a particular issue as an insurmountable obstacle to the Christian faith are encouraged to skip to the relevant section.  For example, someone who believes that questions of Jesus’ identity are wholly irrelevant since God does not exist might want to begin with Chapter 4, while someone who wrestles with the problem of evil might want to start with Chapter 6.  Similarly, if a particular subsection is confusing (or boring), it can often be set aside without affecting the overall point being made.

One final word about content: while each of the arguments in the book are distinct, all of them point back in one way or another to Jesus himself because Jesus is the center of Christianity.  To see Christianity as a collection of rules, or a political platform, or even a set of religious values and practices is to miss it entirely.  Christianity is ultimately about a person: Jesus Christ.  I understand that this kind of statement might be easily dismissed as a product of my own 21st century American theology, but doing so would be a mistake. If you were to line up Christian traditions and great theologians across all cultures and all of church history, they would affirm that the beating heart of Christianity is the declaration that “Jesus is Lord”; that is, he is our king, our God, and our savior.  Amidst all of our discussion of reason and evidence and arguments, let’s remember that this is not a bare intellectual exercise.  Jesus is a real Savior for people desperately in need of rescue.  Jesus is a real savior for people like us.

If you’d like the rest of the book, please email me and I’ll send it to you for free.


[1] Quoted in Arvind Sharma, “Hinduism: Adherent Essay” Handbook of Religion: a Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings, and Practices, ed. Muck, T.C., Netland, H.A. and McDermott, G.R., Baker, 2014, p. 77-78.

[2] Hitchens, C. god is not Great, Hachette, New York, 2007, p. 15-36.

[3] Lurie, A. “Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?” Huffington Post, April 4, 2012.  Accessed online 4/24/2017.

[4] This parable illustrates the questions raised by Netland and Johnson in
Netland, H.A. and Johnson, K.E. “Why is Religious Pluralism Fun – and Dangerous?” Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D.A. Carson, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000, p. 63-64.

[5] Bad example.  In-N-Out Burger is objectively ten thousand times better than Five Guys.

[6] No, quantum mechanics does not provide some bizarre loophole to this assertion through the infamous Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. The contents of Jesus’ tomb would have been ‘measured’ long ago due to exchange of information with the environment.

[7] See Prof. Timothy Tennant’s excellent discussion of interfaith dialogue and the problems of relativism and subjectivism in Chapter 1 of Christianity at the Religious Roundtable:
Tennent, T.C. Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2002.

[8] See Rauch, J. “Let It Be,” The Atlantic. May 2003.  Accessed online 9/3/2016:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/let-it-be/302726/

[9] Lewis, C.S. God in the Dock, ‘Christian Apologetics’, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1970, p. 101.

[10] For those interested, I have a PhD and quite a bit of research experience in the field of theoretical chemistry.  Certainly an interesting subject, but not one with particular relevance to the truth of Christianity!