What grounds the typical Christian’s faith? Christian apologist Greg Koukl makes a frank admission.
What makes someone convert to Christianity? What makes someone remain a believer when their faith is buffeted in a secular, science-minded society?
Greg Koukl’s surprising admission
Christian apologist Greg Koukl answers these questions with a surprising admission in a recent post. I say “surprising,” but this won’t surprise any skeptic who’s been paying attention. Perhaps I should say that it’s an honest or even praiseworthy admission.
He begins by saying that he often gives talks summarizing six apologetic arguments. He doesn’t list them, but I’m sure they’re more or less what any apologist would have on their short list: the Design Argument, Kalam Argument, Moral Argument, Transcendental Argument, and so on.
But here’s the bombshell.
Though I give this talk often, these are not really the reasons I personally believe the Bible is God’s Word. They are sound evidences, and they have their place, … but they are not how I came to believe in the Bible’s authority in the first place. I suspect they’re not the reasons you believe, either, even if you’ve heard the talk and thought it compelling.
He continues, referring to Paul’s epistle of 1 Thessalonians.
I came to believe the Bible was God’s Word the same way the Thessalonians did, the same way you probably did: They encountered the truth firsthand and were moved by it. Without really being able to explain why, they knew they were hearing the words of God and not just the words of a man named Paul.
But if that’s why you believe, why don’t you lead with that? If you don’t believe because of the Kalam argument (say), why waste my time telling me about it?
Koukl says that there are rational reasons to believe things—the Design, Moral, and his other intellectual arguments—but that “God used a different avenue to change our minds about the Bible.”
Is that a better avenue? A reliable avenue? Or just an avenue that bypasses criticism from your intellect and allows you to believe the unbelievable in a twenty-first century world where science continually shows that it provides reliable answers and religion doesn’t? Koukl gives no justification.
He describes this perspective as “non-rational”—not irrational but what sounds like emotional, the opposite of intellectual. The post is full of unevidenced claims that would never stand in an article that hoped to make an intellectual argument: “the Bible is God’s word,” “God inspired those men,” “they knew they were hearing the words of God,” and so on.
And what does Koukl say to the Catholic, Mormon, or Satanist who uses the same approach to build the same emotional foundation? “Good for you”? “Welcome, brother”? He would surely use an intellectual attack to say that his religious position is better than theirs, but how does that work when he’s made clear that the emotional argument trumps the intellectual? He’s handed his religious competition the play book by which they can insulate themselves from his criticism.
Role of God
Koukl encourages Christians to “let God do the heavy lifting” by having potential converts read the Bible. The Bible is magic, I guess, softening up the target so that the Christian apologist’s intellectual argument will have an impact. Again, no evidence is given. This is close to a literal Hail Mary pass, trusting in the supernatural to make the play.
Science has the track record. Apologists happily point to history, archaeology, cosmology, and more to build a case for their individual intellectual arguments. They understand the value of science and its cachet in society, which is why they appeal to it. Their overall argument is a hybrid—science where they can get away with it and appeals to the just-trust-me magical work of the Holy Spirit otherwise.
But Science’s critique is harsh. It says, not that a belief unsupported by evidence hasn’t been disproved and so can be believed (as many apologists imagine), but that arguments with insufficient evidence mustn’t be believed.
Allow me to briefly explore one tangent. It has become popular among apologists to bolster their position by declaring that “faith” means pretty much the same as “trust”—that is, belief well grounded in evidence. This means that the fuzzier, “You’ll just have to take that on faith” definition is gone. This lets them argue that their “faith” has the same solid backing as an empirical claim like, “the sun will rise tomorrow.”
But how can that stand if Koukl says that the bedrock of a Christian’s faith is subjective, untestable, personal feelings?
Koukl has company
Koukl’s belief that the intellectual argument takes a back seat to the emotional one is shared by William Lane Craig, who says:
It is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that gives us the fundamental knowledge of Christianity’s truth. Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role. (Reasonable Faith, Third Edition, p. 47)
And this isn’t new. Sixteenth-century theologian Martin Luther is credited with saying, “[Reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.” Rather than science, they must take the unreliable, untestable, and unfalsifiable approach—not hard in the sixteenth century but difficult today for anyone who follows reason.
How compelling is this Christian argument?
Imagine me as a potential customer. Only arguments and evidence will convert me to a new worldview. A Christian’s experience of the Holy Spirit is, as far as I can tell, just them talking to themselves, so their sharing that won’t help. And how would we test their claims when they’ve dismissed reason, the only potential common language we have?
According to this Christian thinking, when I stand in judgment I’ll be convicted for acting in the only way I can. But how can I be compelled by arguments that I find inherently uncompelling?
See also: “I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You”
Koukl wants to send us back to that docile, childlike state where we just believed without questioning, before the skeptical parts of our brains were mature. That kind of programming can stick, and that’s the logic behind the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”
Once this programming is set, whether adopted as an adult or (more likely) as a child, the adult defends those programmed beliefs. Not wanting to admit that they hold a supernatural worldview merely because they were raised with it or because they’d like it to be true, they muster their substantial intellectual horsepower to defend it with arguments that never convinced them in the first place (I call this Shermer’s Law).
What this appeal to the emotional argument looks like
This is what backing the wrong horse looks like. We skeptics shake our heads at what passes for apologetics, reminding ourselves that Christians are just doing the best they can with a bad hand, when this isn’t even why they believe! The Moral or Design arguments are a misdirection (or a fig leaf) to keep attention off the emotional argument holding up their worldview. Alternatively, we could see these arguments as a recruiting tool (“Well, of course I have good reasons behind my belief in God! Have you heard of the Kalam argument?”).
I imagine a dialogue between an open-minded skeptic and a Christian eager to win one for Christ.
Skeptic: “Why don’t you start with your most compelling argument?”
Christian evangelist: “A couple come to mind—the Design Argument, the Moral Argument, Kalam…. Let’s start with the Moral Argument for God.”
“So then this Moral Argument convinced you that God exists?”
“Well, no, not really.”
“The Design Argument then, or Kalam? I’d rather start with what convinced you.”
“Actually, I learned about all these arguments after I had already become a Christian.”
“If these didn’t convince you, I wonder why they’d convince me. Can’t we start with what did convince you?”
But this pushes the Christian into the emotional (what the Christian might label “spiritual”) personal experience that they wanted to interpret as the action of some person of the Trinity. It’s their claim, not your experience. They “just know” it was God, you don’t, and there’s not much more to talk about.
And is it even the skeptic or atheist who’s the target of these intellectual arguments? I think the primary target is the Christian. The goal is to quiet that nagging doubt in the Christian’s head that sometimes wonders if all these supernatural tales are what they seem—bullshit.
See also: The Holy Spirit’s odd role in evangelism
God will not provide indisputable evidence of existence,
except that He will, and when He does,
He will make it look like
it’s not actually indisputable evidence,
unless you already believe He exists,
in which case it will look like indisputable evidence.
— Barry Goldberg, Common Sense Atheism