Reasonable Unbelief

Modern Christian apologetics arose at a time in Europe when rationalism was on the rise. To combat this new wave of intellectual scepticism Christians also raised rational arguments of their own in defence of their faith. Because of this, Christian apologetics as we know it today is rationalist in nature. While it is just the way it is, it has been a constant point of criticism among some Christians for apologetics’ reliance on rationalism. Now there are some critics who advocate for true fideism, the position that faith is completely independent of reason, but fortunately they are few and far between. However, most apologists do recognise the inherent theological problems with the rationalist nature of their discipline. While they obviously think their discipline is incredibly important, they also acknowledge that the biggest hurdles to faith are not usually intellectual but emotional and psychological. For this reason, they are often acutely aware that it is not arguments that save, only God does. Noted Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer described apologetics as “pre-evangelism”, that is necessary ground work that needs to be done in preparation for the gospel to preached to someone.

While recognising that most apologists have a nuanced understanding of the role of reason in defending the faith and are usually careful not to overstate its significance, there is a reason why it remains a perennial source of criticism. In the middle of intellectual debate, you are going to present your strongest rational arguments, which in turn masks the problems with a rationalist approach in general. Now this is not a deliberate oversight but it is still a problem. It creates the impression that it is simply the rational choice to become a Christian and if you do not accept the arguments then you might be just incredibly foolish. Frankly speaking, the more I have understood the nature of our faith, particularly at its historical core, the more I recognise that there is nothing obvious or intuitive about it. While I am convinced that the faith is not completely irrational, as some militant atheist sceptics like to assert, I am equally convinced that it is not irrational to be sceptical even after you have been presented the best arguments for it.

Let’s consider the linchpin issue of our faith. It is not whether God exists, whether evolution is true or the problem of evil. It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am absolutely convinced that resurrection is the best historical explanation for the emergence of Christianity after Jesus was crucified. (I have number of posts arguing for the resurrection.) The thing that shocked me the most when I was deep into apologetics was just how potent the historical arguments for the resurrection were. Eventhough, it is much better supported than you might think, it is still an incredible claim.

Even for Jesus’ own followers who actually believed in resurrection, according to their own accounts, when they discovered the empty tomb their first thought was not that he had been raised. They didn’t even believe other disciples who had encountered their resurrected master. In fact, many remained sceptical until they saw him face to face and even then, he had to prove to them he was not some apparition (Luke 24.) Now I believe their testimony but even they had a hard time believing. How much more for people who are not already sympathetic to Jesus and are historically far removed from those incredible events?

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus but even in the Bible where there are multiple resurrection accounts it is still considered an incredibly rare event. Even among resurrections, Jesus rising again is a unique event because it was the only true resurrection to immortality and not a resuscitation. Back then, only the Jews believed in the possibility of such a resurrection but they expected it at the end of history not in the middle. The first Christians were themselves Jews but as N.T. Wright points out, it was a radical mutation in first century Judaism among many other oddities of early Christianity’s origins as a first century Jewish messianic sect in the Graeco-Roman world. So as a hypothesis resurrection is certainly possible but it is highly improbable, to put it mildly. Therefore, it is certainly reasonable, to say the least, not to believe such a report.

As a believer, when I take a moment to just pull back and reflect on it, I am simply amazed at the resurrection. The idea that someone was raised from the dead is truly mind blogging. There is no way to explain it. Moreover, imagine it was someone you intimately knew and had committed your life to and you witnessed that person get violently killed. Then a couple of days later you see this person alive and well. If I was in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples, like them I would not know how to process it. There is a line from Luke that always stands out to me. It says that they could not believe what they were seeing out of sheer joy as they saw Jesus in the flesh before them (Luke 24:41.) (By the way, the best cinematic depiction of the utter mind melting shock of encountering the recently deceased Jesus I have ever seen was in the 2016 film Risen.) What’s even more amazing about the resurrection of Jesus is that it is a reconfiguration of reality itself, what the New Testament calls “new creation”. It means that since one man has been raised, death has been undone and now every person will also one day be raised. To think that for me and those I know, even those who have passed away, death is not the end but we will one day return to bodily life is just unfathomable. This not only revolutionises our beliefs about the world, it radically changes how we ought to act and behave in the world.

I have briefly laid out the unparalleled and extraordinary nature of the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate that at its core the Christian faith is truly unbelievable in both senses of the word. It is unbelievable in the literal sense that it is incredibly difficult to believe. This is something the gospel accounts and other places in the New Testament freely acknowledge. For example, Paul, probably the greatest missionary of all time, called the gospel a stupid and repulsive message. In the same breath he also says it is paradoxically the brilliance and strength of the message (1 Corinthians 1:23-25.) This is what make the gospel unbelievable in the other sense of the word, something that is spectacular and truly astounding because it is true. The gospel is the ultimate example of fact being stranger than fiction.

The incredible nature of Christian faith is something that is sadly underemphasised in apologetics because of the need to present strong rational arguments. You can understand why they are not keen on saying “the stuff we are asking you to believe are incredible but we want you to believe them anyway.” However, I think it should be a prominent feature of how apologetics is done. It is more like saying, “I know what I’m about to say sounds crazy but hear me out.” As I have already pointed out, the New Testament itself suggests that there are legitimate reasons for scepticism. If it was just the obvious rational choice, why is there a need for persuasion? If apologetics is about defending the truth of Christianity, then to do it effectively we need to acknowledge the truth of just how incredible it really is. You see if we over-rationalize the faith, reducing it to a logical choice, the rational challenges to it become even harder to surmount since the conversation is being had on purely rational terms. Recognising there are reasonable objections to belief means also recognising there are possibly good reasons to believe beyond the purely rational. While it does not happen very often, the fact is some of the most profound truths about the world cannot be established by reason alone, even in science and mathematics. This truth is embodied in Jesus himself.

Not only does recognising the legitimacy of rational objections help us to present a more honest assessment of our faith to the world, it also allows us to realistically evaluate what we have committed ourselves to. It demonstrates a healthy degree of self-awareness which is critical for the church if it is going to survive and flourish when it faces concerted opposition. For our brothers and sisters around the world who live as minorities in countries where they are directly harassed and persecuted, for them being a Christian is far from the obvious choice. They know just how crazy it is to believe in Christ. For those of us who live in more comfortable circumstances we have forgotten it. In the West, it is partly the reason why the church has been weakened by decades, if not centuries, of attack. They forgot just how remarkable the faith entrusted to them was and by failing to fully understand this they were unprepared for those went after it on precisely how ridiculous it seemed. Speaking as a Ghanaian, I can confidently say the church here, and probably across many parts of Africa, is even more unprepared than our Western counter parts if they were to be challenged on similar grounds. In the African context that challenge will not most likely take the form of Western secular humanism however, I do not think it is hard to point out that Christianity does not seem to make any sense. This is especially because people are acutely aware that Christianity only arrived relatively recently and people back then, and in many ways still do, have a very different worldview.

The world has been so profoundly impacted by the church, it is hard to appreciate just how radical the gospel is. In a way the church’s precipitous decline in the West is due to them being a victim of their own improbable yet spectacular success. If you live in a part of the world where Christianity has been culturally assimilated, one of the key ways to avoid taking it for granted is recognising just how odd and bizarre it is. I have found that knowing the church’s history, particularly how it emerged in the broader context of human history, helps you understand just how strange and perplexing Christianity is. Two books that I found very helpful in coming to this realization are Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods and John Ortberg’s Who is This Man? These are things the church in both the post-Christian West and the Majority World need to know to sustain themselves. If there is any group of Christians in church history who can teach us to not take the faith for granted but properly appreciate how peculiar it is and negotiate our existence even in a hostile world, it is the founding generation, the New Testament church.


One thought on “Reasonable Unbelief

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s