By Al Serrato
Most atheists feel confident that they have “reason” on their side. As a result, many are surprised when a Christian apologist takes an evidentialist, or reason-based, approach to matters of “faith.” Not long ago, the issue arose in a conversation I was having with a skeptic. I had been laying out the basic philosophical arguments for the existence of a supreme, uncaused being.
Accepting the logic of these arguments, she shifted her challenge, saying: “You want me to use reason to get me to agree that God exists, but then stop using it as soon as I get to that point.” In other words, despite hearing rational arguments about the existence of God in general, she could not fathom that a belief in God in particular – the God of the Bible, for instance – could be based on anything other than wishful thinking. Faith, after all, was simply not rational.
My response went something like this: “Hopefully by now, you see that I am not asking you to abandon reason. The types of argument may vary, and the level of certainty about particular conclusions might also differ, but for everything that historic Christianity affirms, there are good reasons to believe what we believe.” She shook her head in, well, disbelief.
“As it applies to Christianity,” I persisted, “some of what we know about God can be inferred from observations. This is referred to as ‘general revelation.’ Consider what we see of the universe: it is spatially and temporally immense, beyond our ability to understand and grasp; it is well-ordered and predictable, with set laws such as logic and math, physics and chemistry, all operating flawlessly, consistently and seamlessly. It contains examples of breath-taking beauty, such as the inherent beauty of music and nature, and heart-pounding emotion, such as the joy of first love or the miracle of birth. But it is also quite deadly, or at the very least quite inhospitable to humans. Despite its immense size, it appears that we can live only in a sliver of air on a remote planet, and even there, most of the planet is exceedingly dangerous to us. You see, my ability to reason can lead me to some generalities: God must be immensely powerful and intelligent; he must be artistic and love order. He must be capable of great love. But is he … harsh? Uncaring? Why is this creation so dangerous? And, most importantly, what comes next? Reason cannot lead us to any answers here. We see a glimpse of God, but not the full picture.”
She wasn’t sure where I was going, and in a way, neither was I. The next step, to a rational reliance on the words of the Bible, is a big step; in fact, for many, it has been, and remains, too big a step for them to take.
I resumed. “To move to a personal relationship with God – in the specific, not general sense – requires more; it cannot be based completely and exclusively on reason. It does, in fact, depend also on faith, but it is a faith that stems from, and finds support in, reason.”
“You want it both ways,” she countered. “You want to call it reason when it is simply wishful thinking.”
I knew what she meant, and I acknowledged that I was struggling with putting these thoughts into words. “No, there is a difference that you’re not seeing. Believing in unicorns is a function of faith; there is no evidence for them, and no good reason to believe they exist. But if you had actual evidence – from trusted sources – that such animals existed, your “faith” in them might eventually become reasonable. The problem isn’t that believing in exotic animals is irrational; the problem is that believing in such animals when there is no evidence – no reason – to support that belief is irrational.”
I shifted gears a bit, wanting to get on to the point while there was time.
“Now, put yourself for a moment in the position of the creator-God. You want to give people true free will so that they are not mere automatons, and you want them to choose a relationship with you without forcing them to do so. Your problem is twofold: if you make your presence too intrusive, they will believe because they have no real choice, but if you reveal nothing of yourself, they will have no basis to know you. So, what you do is reveal enough of yourself so that they will see your presence. Then you choose a messenger who will convey your intentions. It must be fined tuned this way so that those who respond do so freely and not under coercion. Those who do respond freely will eventually be made perfect; he will work on them to free them from their fallen nature and to remove some of what separates them from him. Those who reject him get what they are seeking – separation from him.”
“Christianity affirms that God chose a particular people to convey this message. He used prophets to speak for him, then sent his son. Much of what I trust in about God comes from the words of that son, Jesus. If Jesus is a reliable source (i.e. that he has a basis to know what he claims to know and that he is honest), then I am justified in trusting what he says. If so, then he is a good source of information about God. If he says that God has offered us salvation and prepared a place for us to spend eternity, I can trust that information if I can trust Jesus. I acknowledge that my confidence that there is a heaven is pure faith – I believe it because Jesus says it. But my trust in Jesus is not based on faith. That would be mere wishful thinking. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead not because the Bible says it, but because the evidence of it is very strong, and the evidence against it is not. I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead because I have faith, or because the Bible said it; I have faith that what Jesus said was true and that the Bible is trustworthy because I first had proof that Jesus did what he claimed he would do. He fulfilled the prophecies of centuries before, died for us and then rose from the dead.”
“But,” she began, again shaking her head ….
Enough for one day, I concluded. The next step would be to show why what we know about Jesus is reliable. But I had places to go, and she needed more time to think about what we had covered so far.
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