As you know, I’ve agreed to participate in a brief and public exchange of letters with Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. Here is where we’ve been so far:
Here now is my second reply.
Thank you again for your letter of December 22. I apologize that it has taken me some time to reply. The holiday season and a nice little vacation stood in my way. So maybe I’m not really apologizing at all! It was great to travel, to spend time with friends and family, and to enjoy time away from the every day. But sooner or later we knew that real life would come along again. And that has given me opportunity to respond to your second letter.
Let me go back for one moment before I go forward. In your first letter you provided a list of “facts” (don’t be offended by the quotation marks. I use them simply to indicate that you would consider them facts while I would not) about Christianity–about the person of Jesus, about the authorship of the Bible, and so on. I summarized what you were saying as follows: “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” In your second letter you came back to this. Let me explain myself just a little bit further. Part of me really wants to offer a point-by-point defense or refutation of each of these “facts,” but instead let me say just this. If these things that you say are, indeed, true, I would be a fool to be a Christian. This is what I had attempted to communicate in my last letter.
The apostle Paul himself said that if it could be proven that Christ had not risen from the dead, his faith was utterly futile. Similarly, if what you say is true–if Christ was simply a failed apocalyptic prophet, if the Bible is indeed nothing more than the words of human beings who were not inspired by God, if Jesus and Paul taught completely different things, then we have so undermined the foundation of the faith that it would be foolishness to believe it and, more, to live according to its precepts. I am not an unthinking follower of a religion. I have carefully weighed and considered the evidence for the Christian faith. So of course I disagree with what you have portrayed as fact. I, like you, have done the research but, unlike you, have arrived at very different conclusions. Isn’t it strange how that works?
All of this to say that if what you say is fact is, indeed, fact, I would be an atheist too.
One thing I’d like to clarify here is what I mean when I say that I’m a Christian. I wish that this wasn’t necessary but, unfortunately, it really is. There is no governing body over the name “Christian” (which is a good thing, I’m sure) so anyone can say, “I am a Christian” regardless of what he believes or does not believe. This leaves us with the strange fact that many people who believe very different things lay claim to the same name (like, for example, if people from Zimbabwe and people from the United States both laid claim to the title “American.”). Evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses diverge in absolutely fundamental ways and yet both claim to be Christian. So let me say what I mean when I claim to be a Christian. I hope this will provide useful clarity.
Fundamentally, I mean that I am a follower of Christ. I call myself by his name, placing myself under his authority and leadership. But more specifically, here is a brief outline of the beliefs of those who seek to faithfully follow Christ.
God is the Creator of all that is. He is utterly holy, having no sin or evil whatsoever. He is eternal, having always existed and existing forever. He created the world and all that is in it.
God exists in three persons. There are not three gods but one God who exists in three distinct persons–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As the crowning act of his creation, God created human beings. But these human beings chose to go their own way, committing an act of cosmic treason against their ruler. They turned their backs on him, indicating that they would rather be independent of him. That act put humans in a position of strife against God. All men now sin against God and in that way alienate themselves from him. God’s holiness and God’s justice mean that he cannot tolerate sin and hence, cannot tolerate sinners. Therefore sinners must be put away from him in a place of punishment–a place we know as hell.
But God is merciful and full of grace. He has provided a means by which we may escape the consequences of our sin. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be punished on behalf of sinful men. Christ, though he was God, lived a perfect life and was put to death, crucified on a Roman cross. As he hung on that cross, God punished him for sin in place of sinful human beings. Christ accepted this punishment willingly both out of loving obedience to his Father and out of loving compassion for human beings. Christ died but three days later came back to life, proving that he was, indeed, God.
God now offers forgiveness through the living Christ. Anyone can now receive the benefit of what Christ did, exchanging their sinfulness for Christ’s holiness. Their sin will be counted against Christ and his holiness will be counted to them so that when God looks at sinful men he sees only the holiness of his Son. These people, with their renewed relationship with God, will spend eternity with him.
All God requires for us to receive this benefit is that we place our faith in Christ. This is both a believing about Christ and a believing in Christ–believing that he exists and believing that he stands as the one who mediates between sinful men and a holy God. And thus God calls all men to believe in Christ and to put their faith in him.
A time of judgment will come. At some point in the future Christ will return, bringing an end to this world and ushering in a new era where those who follow Christ will inhabit a recreated, perfected earth while those who have rejected him will receive the necessary and eternal punishment for their rebellion against him.
This is what I mean when I say I am a Christian and really, it’s what I mean when I say that I am an evangelical. Those words are a kind of shorthand that encapsulates all of these beliefs.
In your last letter you asked me to suggest what Christians and atheists could do together to make the world a better place. I find that quite a difficult question to answer. In many ways I think there is a lot we can each do to relieve suffering in this world (which is typically what we mean when we speak about making the world a better place). Christians and atheists alike can bring relief to the poor and healing to the sick. I have a tough time foreseeing any kind of meaningful organization that would deliberately bring Christians and atheists together for this purpose. But certainly as individuals there is much that can be done. And honestly, I think it has to be admitted that Christians are doing a better job of this than atheists. It is not lost on me that in the days after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, countless Christians organizations immediately made great strides in disaster relief, both on the ground and in collecting resources. I heard little of the work of atheists.
Ultimately Christians seek to make the world a better place by living as Christians and by encouraging others to put their faith in Christ. Christians live with a view to the present and also a view to the future. This world is temporary. We are called by God to care for it and to care for the people who inhabit it, but ultimately we know that this world and this life is fleeting. So while we do and should seek to relieve suffering, ultimately our greatest concern is to help people to escape eternal suffering. Without downplaying the horrors of extreme poverty and starvation and all the other trials many in life deal with on a daily basis, we still regard these sufferings as fleeting when compared to the potential joy or sufferings to come. Hence I anticipate that there will always be some level of difficulty when Christians and atheists work together, for Christians will always have an eye to the soul and to the eternal.
Let me leave you with a question. I would be interested in hearing your take on the role and the acceptability of evangelism or proselytization. While Christians are known for their work and perhaps with their obsession in spreading their faith, in recent years atheists are making strides in this area. As it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to be an atheist, we find atheists interested in spreading what they believe (or do not believe). How do you feel about proselytizing? Should we both be free to proselytize or should we both just keep private what we believe (or again, what we do not believe)?