Sunday, February 22, 2015

Belief and unbelief

Decades ago I was asked to direct a summer camp for Christian high school students. Among other things that involved setting a curriculum for study, and — since I believed it was important for Christians to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" — I made the study about arguments for the faith. I'm rather doubtful that the readings assigned and classes taught that summer had much impact on those particular adolescents but I do remain convinced of the value of such study for Christians generally. One of the books I used was a short (100+ pages) work of apologetic by Paul E. Little, published by InterVarsity, titled Know Why You Believe. It is still in print and I think it remains a pretty good introduction to many of the arguments for the faith. From Little's first chapter, "Is Christianity rational?":
"What is faith?" asked the Sunday School teacher. A young boy answered in a flash, "Believing something you know isn't true." Equating faith with naiveté hinders an objective consideration of Christianity. ....

We live in an increasingly sophisticated and educated world. It is no longer enough to know what we believe. It is essential to know why we believe it. Believing something doesn't make it true. A thing is true or not regardless of whether anyone believes it. This is as true of Christianity as of everything else.

There are two equally erroneous viewpoints abroad today on the important question of whether Christianity is rational. The first is, in essence, an anti-intellectual approach to Christianity. Many misunderstand verses like Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." Some use this verse in a way that gives the impression that Christianity is at least non-rational if not irrational. They fail to realize that a clearly reasoned presentation of the Gospel "is important—not as a rational substitute for faith, but as a ground for faith; not as a replacement for the Spirit's working but as a means by which the objective truth of God's Word can be made clear so that men will heed it as the vehicle of the Spirit, who convicts the world through its message." ....

On the other hand there are those who think that becoming a Christian is an exclusively rational process. There is an intellectual factor in the Christian message, but there are also moral considerations. "If any man's will is to do his (God's) will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I (Jesus) am speaking of my own authority" (John 7:17). "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, no man will believe. But one of the instruments the Holy Spirit uses to bring enlightenment is a reasonable explanation of the gospel and of God's dealings with men.

It is quite true that an unenlightened mind cannot come to the truth of God unaided, but enlightenment brings comprehension of a rational body of truth.

The gospel is always equated with truth. Truth is always the opposite of error. "Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12). Those who do not believe are defined by Paul as those who "do not obey the truth" (Romans 2:8). These statements would be meaningless unless there were a way to establish objectively what the truth is. If there were no such possibility, truth and error would, for all practical purposes, be the same because we would have no way to tell one from the other.

In writing to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that men have enough knowledge from creation itself to know there is a God (Romans 1:20). He goes on to show that the basic reason men do not know God is not because he cannot be known or understood but because men have rebelled against him, their creator. "For although they knew God they did not honor him as God" (Romans 1:21) "and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:23), "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie" (Romans 1:25), and, finally, "they did not see fit to acknowledge God" (Romans 1:28).

The moral issue always overshadows the intellectual issue in Christianity. It is not that man cannot believe—it is that he "will not believe." Jesus pointed the Pharisees to this as the root of the problem. "You refuse to come to me," he told them, "that you may have life" (John 5:40). He makes it abundantly clear that moral commitment leads to a solution of the intellectual problem. "If any man's will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority" (John 7:17). Alleged intellectual problems are often a smoke screen covering moral rebellion. ....

The question is often asked, "If Christianity is rational and true, why is it that most educated people don't believe ti?" The answer is simple. They don't believe it for the very same reason that most uneducated people don't believe it. They don't want to believe it. It's not a matter of brain power, for there are outstanding Christians in every field of the arts and sciences. It is primarily a matter of the will. ....