This is a cross-post of my new piece at the HBU School of Christian Thought blog.
There are two rather typical responses from materialist scientists and philosophers to the suggestion that a creator God guides the development and sustains the order of nature:
1) Our current scientific theories on the evolution of all things are sufficient to explain all natural phenomena. The idea of a creator has been rendered superfluous.
2) Science doesn’t have it all figured out, and truth be told, it may never give us comprehensive knowledge of natural history or a full explanation for the stability and regularities of the cosmos, but plugging God into these knowledge gaps is no better than the ancient Greek practice of attributing thunderstorms to Zeus.
Standard practice for an apologist faced with such statements is to describe the evidence for cosmic and biological design or the shortcomings of naturalistic theories when it comes to explaining the indications of rationality in nature. The apologist uses science to argue for a God-designed, God-guided natural world. This is a solid technique and one that I often use. However, it isn’t the only angle from which to approach such a discussion, which is great news for faith-defenders lacking scientific expertise.
In the C.S. Lewis collection God in the Dock, there are two essays that are incredibly insightful and instructive. Lewis was not a scientist, though he knew a great deal about the reigning theories of his era and commented upon them in many of his writings. But he was wise to the fact that, more often than not, the core issue is philosophical, though the materialist scientist rarely recognizes this. Lewis’s tactic for dealing with materialist claims such as those above was quite powerful, as we see in “Religion and Science” and “The Laws of Nature.”
In the first essay, Lewis addresses the question of divine intervention in nature. He sets up a Socratic dialogue between himself and a materialist who insists that “modern science” has proven that there’s no transcendent cause for the workings of nature.
“But, don’t you see,” said I, “that science never could show anything of the sort?”
“Why on earth not?”
“Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists—anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”
This is a key point that is all too often missed by those claiming that science has ruled out the existence of God. But Lewis’s interlocutor persists in his objections:
“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them.”
In other words, because there are “laws of nature,” it is impossible for anything to disrupt the regular course of nature. Such a thing would, he says, result in absurdity, just as breaking the laws of mathematics would.
But Lewis demonstrates, in his typically charming yet utterly logical fashion, that natural laws only tell you what will happen as long as there is no interference in the system from the outside. Furthermore, those laws can’t tell you if such interference is going to occur.
Science studies the material universe and can say quite a lot about how it operates under normal conditions. What it cannot rule out is the existence of something independent of the universe with the power to intervene in natural affairs. This supernatural activity would entail a cosmos that is an open system rather than a system closed to “outside” immaterial causation. Again, the limitations of science preclude it from ruling out such a state. Says Lewis, “…it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.” It is, it turns out, a philosophical question.
In the second essay, “Laws of Nature,” Lewis examines the question of God’s guidance of the natural world and whether or not the prayers of mankind have any bearing on the course of events.
Lewis walks us through his own thought process in dealing with the assertion that nature is deterministic, functioning according to a set of laws, like balls on a billiards table. But look, declares Lewis, no matter how far back you go in the causal chain of natural events, you’ll never reach a law that set the whole chain in motion. He says, “..in the whole history of the universe the laws of Nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on?”
Natural laws are completely impotent when it comes to event causation; they only tell what happens after ignition, so long as free-willed agents (God included) do not interfere. About the laws Lewis says, “They explain everything except what we should ordinarily call ‘everything.’” Indeed.
“Science, when it becomes perfect,” he explains, “will have explained the connection between each link in the chain and the link before it. But the actual existence of the chain will remain wholly unaccountable.”
There is, then, no contradiction between natural law and the acts of God, for he supplies every event for natural law to govern. Everything in nature is providential! In other words, we don’t need gaps in scientific explanation to have a place for postulating divine activity. But, nota bene, this is not to say that there aren’t real gaps in the explanatory framework that materialist science, by nature, cannot fill.
What does all this mean about the effectuality of human prayers? If a causal chain is already in motion, what difference could prayer possibly make? To answer this, we must be mindful of God’s timelessness and omniscience:
“He, from His vantage point above Time, can, if He pleases, take all prayers into account in ordaining that vast complex event which is the history of the universe. For what we call ‘future’ prayers have always been present to Him.”
And, it’s out of the park, ladies and gentlemen.
Parents and Teachers who have come to understand the high value of apologetics in cultivating an informed Christian faith are well aware that there aren’t many educational resources appropriate for elementary-age children. My colleagues and I have often discussed the fact that one of the more frequent requests we receive is for apologetics-focused children’s books and curricula.
In response to God’s calling and the dearth of available resources, I began developing the Young Defenders storybook series in the summer of 2012. My vision was to communicate key apologetics concepts to children using winsome stories and unique artwork. The story part was right up my alley, but the art–not so much. So, I approached master artist Christopher Voss of Voss Art Studio about illustrating my first manuscript, and he agreed, despite the fact that our investment of time and energy was risky. Long story short, our first book was purchased by Apologia Press, and we were contracted for three successive books in the series.
In the spring of 2013, book one was released. How Do We Know God is Really There? introduces Thomas, a perceptive boy with lots of questions about biblical truth claims. An astronomy project inspires a thoughtful conversation between Thomas and his dad about evidence for a Creator of the cosmos. Basically, the story makes the cosmological argument for the existence of God accessible to young readers.
Book two, How Do We Know God Created Life? was released just a few weeks ago. This time, Thomas is joined by his mom and best friend Sophie on an exciting excursion to an insect exhibit at the Museum of Natural Science. Through the story and illustrations, readers learn fun facts about fascinating insects as well as a case for the intelligent design of living creatures using butterfly metamorphosis as the model. If you’ve ever seen the Illustra Media documentary, Metamorphosis, you will be familiar with this argument. My goal was to explain it in a manner comprehensible to elementary age students, and I knew Chris Voss’s illustrations for this story would be amazing (I was right).
Books three and four will cover the reliability of the Bible and a defense of the resurrection, respectively.
Story and art are highly effective vehicles for communicating important truths about the world, particularly the rationality of the Christian faith. Worlviews begin forming at a very young age, hence the need for equipping our young sons, daughters, and students with solid reasons for the hope we have in Christ.
Thus far, feedback on the Young Defenders books has been overwhelmingly encouraging! Children as young as six or seven are grasping the arguments and repeating them to their friends. Children as old as twelve still appreciate the content and whimsical artwork.
Book one is currently available through Amazon and iTunes. Signed copies of book two are available through my other ministry website, www.sciencereasonfaith.com and the ebook is also on iTunes. Within the next month or two, book two should be made available through Amazon.
All proceeds from the sale of Young Defenders storybooks are used to pay for the phenomenal artwork and to fund my PhD coursework. Thank you for your support of this project and my ministry!
A year or so into my grad school work, I tentatively assumed the role of public apologist. The landmark day was in the summer of 2010, when I instituted this blog to formally make myself available to both believers and non-believers struggling with questions about the alleged truths of Christianity. Not surprisingly, as I’ve worked to educate others, I have learned many valuable lessons on what to do and what not to do in apologetics ministry. For the benefit of apologists of all levels, I’d like to share a couple of important insights that may change the way you see and practice this discipline at the interpersonal level.
I’m going to tell you what your job is NOT.
You are not a spoon-feeder. I have found that many folks, abrasive atheists/agnostics in particular, aren’t willing to undertake serious research on their own. They’re armed with a hundred pop-atheism talking points that have long been answered, which goes to show they haven’t investigated the opposing viewpoint at all. Instead, they expect you to take a significant amount of time out of your schedule to distill your entire bank of knowledge on a topic into a few paragraphs and then relay it to them on social media or by email. If you do go to the effort, they often wave their hand at your response and change the subject. Don’t fall into this trap. Pay attention to verbal cues and the attitude of the individual to determine whether or not they are sincerely interested in your answers, give them a sentence or two to chew on and then direct them to a book, article, or lecture by a reputable scholar. If they come back at a later date, having studied the sources, further dialogue is warranted, so long as they maintain a respectful tone. If they simply dismiss your words and suggestions with poor logic, make snide comments about the scholars you recommend, or change the subject, cut off the conversation and stop wasting your time. Such a person is a distraction from ministry, not a legitimate beneficiary. Often, such persons will try to goad you into arguing with them further by questioning the depth or breadth of your knowledge or even your credentials. Don’t succumb to the temptation to defend yourself. Never forget that one of the strongest tactics of the Enemy is to keep you busy with futile business.
You are not a mind-changer. Apologetics is about disseminating truth. The apologist is called to demonstrate the quality of the evidence for Christianity and provide substantial answers for objections. This does not include debating with someone until they concede a point. The success of your efforts cannot be measured by how many times an interlocutor says to you, “good point,” or “you’re right.” Rarely, if ever, will a hardened skeptic say such a thing to you. As the subtitle of this blog hints, we are to put pebbles in shoes; we give the person some relevant facts to consider and point them to sound resources, but at the end of the day, the individual must be, or become, open to the evidence. Emotional barriers are powerful things, and they’re almost always disguised as intellectual objections. The truth is, for some people, no evidence that now exists or ever could exist would make a difference to them because deep down, it isn’t about the facts at all. As the atheist scholar, Dr. Thomas Nagel has so bluntly put it, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (The Last Word, 1997)
You are not a soul-saver. Apologetics ministry is not about “winning souls,” as the old-time evangelists would put it. Rather, our work is about removing true intellectual obstacles. For some believers, this removal brings great relief from doubt, for some seekers, it paves the way for a more serious investigation of Christianity. But ultimately, the acceptance or rejection of Christ is a choice made by the individual in response to the Holy Spirit’s calling. Do not even try to own someone’s decision.
Today, I’m praying for all believers engaged in apologetics, whether at the scholarly level or in their own home. Please also pray for me. Soli Deo gloria.
If you don’t know about Dr. Brian Mattson, you should. I’ve followed his work for a while, and I’ve come to have quite a bit of respect for him as a scholar. He is insightful and winsome, yet he doesn’t hold back from telling it like it is. He blogs at drbrianmattson.com and he posts edgy and entertaining commentary videos on his site, Dead Reckoning TV.
On March 18th, he delivered a sermon at Harvest Church in Montana entitled “The Old Man Upstairs.” It is an argument for the existence of God in the vein of Romans chapter 1 (which is the text for the sermon), but Dr. Mattson takes a rather unique approach that I find refreshing. It’s truly a must-watch. (NOTE: There’s a very large popup on the church’s website. You must click the fine print at the bottom to get rid of it and access the sermon.)
This one is going on my “Top 10 Favorite Apologetics Lectures” list.
I am pleased to present a review of the film God’s Not Dead from guest writer (and my friend) Ken Mann. Ken is currently wrapping up his M.A. in Science and Religion at Biola University and is a regular contributor to Dr. Holly Ordway’s website, Hieropraxis. He resides with his family in Colorado.
I have a confession to make. When I first saw the trailer for God’s Not Dead, I winced. Perhaps it was the brevity of the medium. Perhaps it was the “David against Goliath” theme being wielded (at least in the trailer) with the subtlety of a nuclear weapon. Perhaps it was simply my fear it would be another in a long line of poorly executed Christian themed films.
I have never been more pleased to be so wrong. Having viewed the film this weekend with my 18-year-old daughter, I could hardly wait to write about it. I believe every Christian should see this movie. They should become familiar with some of the apologetics material in it and take an atheist/skeptic friend to see it. The conversations that would follow would be wonderful, even epic.
Allow me to review the film from two different perspectives: as an apologist and as a filmgoer.
As an apologist, going in I was especially worried. From the trailer, it seemed obvious that the Problem of Evil as well as the existence of God were part of the story. Making such material accessible and presenting it in the necessarily compressed context of a film narrative are daunting challenges. A college classroom and an arrogant philosophy professor are wonderful vehicles for the film’s protagonist (Shane Harper) to present scientific arguments for God’s existence. The nerds of scientific apologetics (like myself) will be awed at the name-dropping (Hawking, Dawkins, Lennox and Lemaître) and potent quotations (“Philosophy is dead.”). The casual viewer not familiar such material will hopefully come away with the strong impression that the Christian view of reality, as seen in the history of the universe, is rational and plausible.
The problem of evil plays a prominent role in the film’s overall narrative, while playing a very minor role in the apologetics dialogue of the classroom. Since I want to avoid spoiling the film, I will simply say that the problem of evil is real and has “nasty pointy teeth.” There are some difficult, gut wrenching moments, which serve to drive home the necessity of grappling with the question of God.
Overall, I would describe the apologetic elements of the film as tight, clear and effective.
As a filmgoer I was pleased. The story never dragged and kept four different yet interrelated storylines moving toward a significant and powerful collision at the end of the film. As I experienced it, there were only a few times when the dialogue seemed stilted. After certain plot elements were injected into the story, the scene ends abruptly. However, these minor annoyances were overshadowed by a well-acted and well-paced story where almost every character, even the atheist, was sympathetic. I wept. I cheered. I was completely captivated.
Finally, let me share the analysis that came from my conversation with my daughter. As much as she shared my reaction to the film as we watched it, she commented on the way home, “It worked well as a draft.” As effective and well done as it was, it had many rough edges. It was as if, once the apologetics scenes were tight, and the entire screenplay was deemed short enough, they went ahead a started shooting. At a mere 113 minutes, some pacing could have been sacrificed for the sake of narrative exposition.
Finally, as both an apologist and reviewer, there is an element of the story that simultaneously works for and against film. Anyone familiar with Greg Koukl’s Tactics knows, the concept of a student challenging a professor in the professor’s classroom, is absurd. The professor is the authority, the expert in their field, they “own the microphone,” and is, in effect “god” in the class. In that sense, the central storyline of the film seems implausible.
Yet this very element works as the most important message of the film. It is implied that Shane Harper’s character, Josh Wheaton, has been a Christian a long time (at least six years), but not fluent in apologetics. He neglects all of his other classes to read and prepare for his “lectures” in the hostile philosophy class. In his first lecture, he is tentative and ultimately stumped by a single Stephen Hawking quotation. During his third and final lecture Josh has been transformed. He began convinced (seemingly by the Holy Spirit) of the necessity of his task. He ends inspired and emboldened by what he has learned.
That is the most powerful message of the film. Those who are willing to study (philosophy, science and theology) will be given the confidence of the truth, a confidence to assault any fortress, any idea, which denies the reality of God.
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
 I have written on this topic in a five part series and I am currently working my way through The Many Faces of Evil. This is a deep and complex topic, but every Christian needs to be familiar with the subject.
Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can also connect with Ratio Christi at CU on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @gadgetmann.
The New Testament contains the most well-attested ancient texts in existence, yet its factual reliability is a matter of high controversy. The predominant reason? The books record supernatural happenings. Skeptics with a pre-commitment to materialism are philosophically compelled to reject any and all testimonies that allege divine activity– miraculous healings, resurrections, and the like. In other words, since the New Testament records such things, the entire collection is suspect and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a compilation of historical documents.
But is this justified? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If an ancient document withstands the pressures of scholarly scrutiny when it comes to historical details, if there are many early manuscripts still in existence that can be compared with one another and with our modern translations to demonstrate faithful transmission, and if independent facts can place the original writing of the document very close to the events it records, it seems only reasonable that we should at least carefully consider any supernatural happenings described in the text.
The typical rebuttal to this is that our everyday experience doesn’t include supernatural phenomenon and such happenings would violate the laws and regularities of nature. Therefore, supernaturalism is false and the New Testament isn’t reliable. This is a textbook example of begging the question. By definition, a supernatural occurrence is an anomaly; it stands out because it isn’t what we would predict based upon current scientific knowledge. However, that says nothing about whether or not a supernatural event is possible or could have happened in the past. I see no difficulty in the idea that God can work in the natural world either through the laws and regularities He has ordained or by their temporary suspension. To say that our cosmos is a self-contained, closed causal system that is never acted upon from “outside” is to make a philosophical statement, since science cannot, by definition, prove that immaterial, transcendent intervention in the world has never occurred or doesn’t continue to occur, detected or undetected.
My central argument here is that rejecting Scripture based on the fact that it testifies to events inexplicable by the natural sciences isn’t justified. It is reasonable to be open-minded about supernatural content, based on the demonstrable integrity of the remainder of the book.
With all that said, we can consider test cases from the New Testament. I am particularly fascinated by the writings of Luke, which include the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, so I’ll use those for this discussion. (Click here for a bit of background on Dr. Luke.)
Historical Veracity of Luke and Acts
When an ancient historical document is evaluated for accuracy, it is compared with other surviving historical records to check for potential corroboration of the alleged facts. The books of the New Testament are subjected to this scholarly scrutiny and fare quite beautifully. Using Luke’s writings a test case, here are some of the pertinent facts:
1. We know that Acts was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, if we can give Acts an early date, it’s reasonable to assign the Gospel of Luke a slightly earlier date.
2. The oldest surviving fragments and manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke and Acts (dating to about 200-250 A.D.) as well as the large numbers of somewhat later manuscripts translated into many languages, give New Testament scholars a high degree of confidence that our best modern translations are faithful to the original autographs (originally penned documents). Don’t let anyone fool you with that ridiculous telephone game argument, which shows complete ignorance of the dynamics of textual transmission and textual criticism.
3. Acts, being a record of the birth of the Church and its early history, is conspicuously silent on major (even earth-shattering) historical events that we have extra-biblical records of. These include: 1) The severe persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero, which began around 64 A.D. This was a gruesome, horrific episode in early Church history, yet Acts doesn’t mention it at all. 2) The Roman-Jewish War, which began in 66 A.D. 3) The fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It’s absurd to think that the fall of a central city for Christendom would not make it into the first historical account of the Church. 4) The martyrdoms of James (61 A.D.), Paul (64 A.D.), and Peter (66 A.D.) Surely Luke would mention the execution of early Christianity’s key leaders. The best explanation for why Acts of the Apostles is silent on all of these crucial events is that it was written before they occurred, which places the writing of Acts (and by default, Luke) in the mid-first century, A.D. at the latest. This means, of course, that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written very close to the time of the events they describe.
4. The Gospel of Luke is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Luke 3:1-2 says, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene”. Now, back in the 19th century, this passage caused scholars to doubt the accuracy of Luke’s gospel, because although there was a ruler in history named Lysanias, he was killed by Mark Antony in 36 B.C., a half-century before the events Luke is referring to. But later, in the very same province near Damascus (in today’s modern Syria), an inscription was discovered that spoke of a tetrarch named Lysanias who was ruling during the time frame precisely consistent with Luke’s account. It is significant that, in addition to the time frame, Luke got both the title and the name of the individual correct.
5. Acts is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Acts 18:11-2 says, “But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat.” Note that our best estimate for when Paul arrived in Corinth is based upon the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius in the year 49 A.D. This puts Paul arriving in Corinth sometime around 50 A.D., and then Achaia in 51 A.D. So, what we need to corroborate the veracity of this passage is evidence that Achaia had a proconsul named Gallio in the year of Paul’s trial.
The title of the leader of a province in Rome depended upon whether the province was senatorial or imperial. If it was senatorial, the leader was called a proconsul, but if it was imperial, the leader was called a legate. Achaia went through three different phases. From 27 B.C. to 15 A.D. it was a senatorial province, from 16 A.D. to 44 A.D. it was an imperial province, and then from 44 A.D. onward, it was a senatorial province again. This means that a leader in 51 A.D would indeed have been called a proconsul. What about the name of this proconsul?
Well, in the early 20th century, a limestone inscription (thought to have been attached to the outer wall of the Temple of Apollo) was uncovered in Delphi, Greece. It is a letter from Claudius to the city of Delphi, naming Gallio as the friend of Claudius and proconsul of Achaia. The dating of the inscription (between April and July of 52 A.D.) places the beginning of Gallio’s tenure as proconsul in July of 51 A.D. Luke got it all correct.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are accurate on fine historical details, they were written very soon after the events they describe, and we have a high degree of certainty that the content of the original texts has been reliably transmitted throughout history. At the least, this means that we can trust these books as historical records. As such, it is entirely reasonable to take the supernatural content into serious consideration. In fact, dismissing the books because of their supernatural content isn’t justified. Rejecting the books or just particular portions because of supernatural content shows a philosophical pre-commitment to materialism rather than an objective weighing of the historical evidence.