Why Believe Christianity?
Taken from the September 2010 issue of the Creation Answers Newsletter
Many people think that when someone gets involved with a church, or some religious group, they are just choosing something that suits their own values and preferences. So, you can pick a religion as you want because one is as good as another. Freedom of choice is a good thing and Americans value it very highly. But if the Bible is true, choosing a belief system is not a matter of choosing among an array of equal options. According to Christianity you can be right or wrong about beliefs the same way you can be right or wrong about giving someone street directions for how to get to the hospital. Some criticize Christians for being "too exclusive." Perhaps Christians have sometimes deserved this criticism because they may not always had a right attitude or treated others as they should. As Jesus taught and dealt with different people he clearly presented the truth as exclusive. In John 14:6 Jesus said, ďI am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Yet Jesus cared very much about people. Jesus was not criticized much for being too exclusive, he was criticized by Jewish religious leaders at the time (a strict legalistic crowd) for touching prostitutes and for having dinner with people of bad reputation.
In this article I would like to address some basics about what Christian faith is and address the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. There is a lot of skepticism about religion today, yet many people are still religious. Some atheists argue we should not believe in God because of all the problems that have been caused by religion. But I would say there is evidence of something real and true in Christian faith that is not available from any other belief system. It seems today's popular understanding is generally that religion is not universally true (true for all people across time) and it is not applicable to all of life. There are important exceptions to this for some religious groups, such as Muslims, and certain cults.
Today there is a prevalence of a mindset known as Postmodernism (see the Charles Colson article below for more explanation). Many people have a postmodernist attitude without knowing what to call it. Postmodernism is skeptical of any authority that makes claims about there being certain truth that is true for all. Science sometimes makes such claims. Religious leaders of many religions in the world have made such claims. History has seen many who have made claims of truth who have wrongly tried to use their knowledge or their beliefs to manipulate or control others. But is this all there is to the question of truth?
Postmodernists also see people as inherently determined by the social and cultural background they come from. The skepticism of Postmodernism makes virtually everything relative and nothing certain. Even language itself becomes relative according to Postmodernism, so it becomes absurd in the Postmodern mindset for one to believe that all people could read something like the Bible and get the same message from it. This line of thinking regarding language also implies there is no reason it really matters what the original intent of Bible writers was, since our cultural climate and mindset is different today. The Biblical view of things is very different from the entire Postmodernist way of thinking. The Bible says God has revealed to human beings using written language and God has told human beings who have a relationship with him to communicate the message in this revelation to people all over the world. It would not make sense for God to command this in the Great Commission if it were impossible to communicate his message to all mankind. A Postmodernist might ask, "but how can God rely on human beings to do this and expect the message to get communicated properly?" This is a bit of a mystery, and sometimes the message does not get communicated properly. But the limitations of human beings do not mean the message is not there or that it cannot be communicated.
Postmodernists gravitate toward emphasizing their personal experience and the subjective because they do not trust the objective or the analytical. One problem with this, from a Biblical perspective, is that since we all have a fallen sinful nature, we have trouble interpreting our experience. If someone judges what is right and true and best for them by their experience, they may change their values with their life circumstances. They may say "It just felt right" for example about an important moral question without considering what is right according to the Bible. People can sometimes change their minds about moral and spiritual issues for trivial reasons. Someone judging truth from experience may also be easily manipulated or deceived by others who know how to manipulate their experience and their emotions. Modern media is sometimes used this way, but religious, academic, and political leaders can sometimes be skilled at manipulation also. We need a revealed Truth to test our thinking against.
The Bible gives us a source of universal Truth that is true for all people. It tells us the truth about ourselves and our problems, as well as telling us the truth about the world outside ourselves. It came to us by the supernatural inspiration of God revealing unlearned truth to imperfect human beings. The Apostle Paul wrote this about the "Gospel" that he preached in Galatians 1:12 in the New Testament, "I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." The fact that the Truth of Scripture came to imperfect people and is communicated by imperfect people is paradoxical but it does not make the Bible any less trustworthy or authoritative.
One of the reasons many people think of all religions as alike I think is that they understand religions as invented or made-up by human beings. People make up world view ideas to attempt to explain their experience, perhaps sometimes to justify their experience, and to guide them in life. How successful have people been (considering all of human history) in creating world views that explain human experience?
I would say that one way in which Christianity is different from other beliefs is that when people believe it and really live it, it works for the person over the long term. Not only does it help them live life, but it helps them cope with adversity, and it particularly helps people face death. But I would say the way Christian faith helps people live life is not always very evident over the short term. It is seeing the trends of a Christian believer living out their faith over the course of their whole life that demonstrates God being at work in their life. Every Christian falls short sometimes, but isolated failures do not break a Christianís relationship with God. The reality of God in someone's life is demonstrated more by the long term direction of their life than by any particular dramatic or spiritual experience along the way. I'm not saying there cannot be dramatic changes when someone becomes a Christian, or at other times in their life. In fact, there was very significant change in my life when I became a Christian. But the dramatic initial changes can be difficult to maintain over the long term. The initial early memories and experiences from becoming a Christian are not enough to enable us to stay true to our faith over the long term. Thus, we need revealed truth that was not made up by man to guide us, which is what the Bible provides.
We do not change our basic nature and makeup as human beings, though we can learn many ways of responding to things around us. I do not refer here to the things that make us unique individuals, but to the things that just make us human. People are able to rationalize almost anything, but there is a reality that exists apart from what we believe or experience. So if someone says we make up concepts of God and right and wrong, they're saying so does not change what human beings are, or what God is like. So when people do something that is morally wrong, there is some consequence to that which the person has to live with. This is not changed by any arguments the person has that they did not do wrong. Thus living in a way that is contrary to God's standards is not healthy. Sin not only offends God, it hurts us because it is contrary to the way we are designed to live. The existence of Jesus Christ, as the Bible presents Him, does not depend on whether people experience his presence or not. Christianity is not true because people feel like it's true. When human beings make up beliefs, they don't fit reality very well or explain human experience well. People who have experimented with many religions often say it is a frustrating experience. All human beings make moral judgements and I think have a sense of searching for something beyond themselves. It stands to reason that if there is a truth that is true for all, and binding on all people, it would address felt needs in real life experience. Christianity does address felt needs, and it explains the human conscience, but it is based on objective truth.
What are we as human beings? Why do people imagine God at all? Why do people imagine time, space, and reality? Was there some random mutation in a hominid's brain (an ape-man intermediate) that made it imagine God for the first time two million years ago? Of course, some would argue that because we evolved from lower life forms our nature is determined by the processes of evolution, not that we are designed by God to live as he designed. According to an evolutionary view of man, we acquired many of our characteristics from lower animals that are in our remote ancestry. But Biblically, we have characteristics like animals because we are creatures made to live on the same planet. Also, Biblically, we are given rule over animals and so the similarities we share with animals should help us care for, manage, and enjoy them. An evolutionary view of man fails to explain how we are different from all other animals. Our uniqueness as human beings is something not explained adequately by any belief system except the Biblical view. All non-Christian beliefs tend to devalue human beings in some way. But the Bible teaches we are created in Godís image (Genesis 1:26-28).
It is often looked at suspiciously if you claim to be certain of what to believe about God or morality. The Bible suggests Christians can have confidence of their salvation and eternal destiny (see I John 5:11-13). It is true that sometimes organized religion has confused people instead of helping them find answers. But the errors of the Church and of Christians do not mean there is no true way to God worth finding. By the same token local churches with problems do not mean it is impossible to have a healthy church. Some people will say that they doubt the Bible and Christianity because of how Christians they've known have fallen short or mistreated them or failed in some way. But if a person is a poor example of a Christian, why should they be used to judge Christianity? If you want to judge Christianity by someone's life, doesn't it stand to reason that you would find a good example? Even nonchristians are usually very well able to judge the difference between a good example of a Christian and a poor example. Therefore Christians who do not live out their faith well do not disprove Christianity in any way. They just make things difficult for others.
The Uniqueness of Christianity
Christianity answers both the intellectual questions about the meaning of our existence and it also explains our day-to-day experience about being human. Some would say it doesn't matter what religion you follow, that any of them would have similar benefits to a person. It is true that there are some benefits in living by the beliefs of various religions, but they do not explain all of life like Biblical Christianity. Non-Christian religions also I think do not give the person the assurance about facing death that a Christian has. Non-Christian religions are not equivalent to experiencing life as a Christian. They do not have the same power to make lasting changes in people's lives. Many have tried living by various religions, only to finally become Christians after being totally frustrated with the other beliefs.
Is living a moral life evidence that a person is right with God? I would say not always. People may live moral lives for a variety of reasons. Some atheists live a moral life in many respects for purely pragmatic reasons, reasoning that it avoids practical difficulties. Mormons or Muslims often live very moral lives, as do some others of other religions. So what makes the difference between them and a Christian? I would say the difference is not whether they are moral in their behavior (though all people should live a moral life). I would say it is the motivation for living a moral life that makes a Christian different than all the others. It makes a big difference whether you live a right life out of gratitude to God and love for Him, compared to doing it out of fear or pressure from others. The first can be sustained because it is in the context of a real relationship, the second often cannot be sustained or is at least unsatisfying.
Living and experiencing the Christian life is a personal and subjective thing in many ways. But as Josh McDowell has pointed out, it is important to realize that across the world, many people from different nations and walks of life have had a similar subjective experience of their life being changed in positive ways, based on the same objective reality. That objective reality is faith in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. I would say that reality includes the acceptance of the Bible as the revealed word of God. I am not referring here to what someone must believe in order to be saved. That is fortunately very simple. As John 3:36 says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for Godís wrath remains on him." I'm addressing what the logical basis is for what Christians believe. Jesus Christ was a real man who lived in history. Anyone who claims there is no historical evidence for Jesus Christ or for the events of the New Testament is just ignorant. There are a good sources on this. (See for example, reference #2 below from Apologetics Press.)
Faith and History
The Bible tells a story that is rooted in history. The Bible includes a number of different types of literature and thus speaks in different ways for different needs but even the poetry of the Psalms often have a historical context. When people make up religions they don't have to make them rooted in history. In fact, made-up religions tend to either invent a completely false history or treat things as if the connection to history does not really matter. Of the religious beliefs in the world, only Christianity cares about the connection to history and about being true to reality. Some religions only care about history in the sense of depending on the founder of the religion being a real historical person who did what is believed. In fact, often the actual history of the religion's founder is rather different than what the religion's adherents believe.
This is not the case regarding Christ, according to historical evidence. There is also historical evidence that substantiates the Old Testament. The whole of the Bible's teaching about mankind's need for a savior depends on there being the Fall from Genesis 3, when human beings first sinned against their Maker. Because much of the Bible's narratives are about real people, places, and events, if the history of the Bible is wrong, it calls into question many things in the Bible that follow. Thus, as it has been said, the New Testament rests on the Old Testament, and the Old Testament rests on the book of Genesis. Note that though Islam does accept Genesis and acknowledges Moses (for example) as a prophet, they give priority to the writings of Muhammad and they often do not consider the Old Testament to be inerrant.
Christianity also has a unique savior in Jesus Christ. First, no one has found any substantial evidence that Jesus did not live by what he taught. This cannot be said of the founders of a number of other religions. The movie The DaVinci Code based on the book by Dan Brown, brought to popular culture's attention some ideas questioning the basic integrity and life of Jesus Christ presented in the New Testament. But the entire DaVinci Code story badly distorts the real facts. The Gospel of Thomas which was considered part of the basis for the DaVinci Code ideas was a document written after all the Apostles were dead, so it did not come from the Apostle named Thomas. It includes some ideas similar to Gnosticism and some ideas very different from Jesus' teaching. After the Apostles were dead there were false Christs and false gospels that had some influence. There was confusion about doctrines regarding Christ that was largely settled in various early Church councils. But the four gospels in the New Testament, as well as the rest of the canon of Scripture, have always been well agreed upon for the most part. It seems to me that from what I have learned of history, it has been pretty easy to identify false gospels and false Messiahs. The challenging question is are we willing to acknowledge the real Messiah when we find him?
Jesus made unique claims about himself and had a remarkable ministry ending in his being unjustly crucified under Roman law. He claimed to fulfill Old Testament Scripture and a number of details about his birth, life, and death were prophesied by Old Testament prophets hundreds of years prior to the events. He forgave sins, miraculously healed, raised the dead on a few occasions, walked on water, and did a variety of other miracles. If the claims of the miracles were not reliable or trustworthy, you would think there would be indications in the rest of the accounts that the they were not reliable in other respects as well. But the four gospels of the New Testament are well attested in all the historical details that can be checked. Of course we cannot really scientifically prove miracles, or even prove historical events since they are one-time events and are thus unrepeatable. But neither can science disprove them. The issue of believing in miracles is understandably difficult for some people. It was something I struggled with for some time after I became a Christian, as a physics major in college. But if you can accept that the God of the Bible is all powerful as the Creator, the miracles of Jesus' life are not really an issue. The New Testament is a reliable source about Jesus' life and ministry.
Jesus was also a real human being. He ate, cried, laughed, thirsted, slept, and lived like other people in first century Israel. For most of his life prior to about age 30 he apparently did very little that was particularly unusual, having grown up as the eldest son (but not biological son) of a carpenter. But when he started his ministry, it changed all of history. Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders. He taught in a way that amazed people and he trained 12 men to follow after him. The most well educated Jewish scholars of the time gave up trying to trap him in what he said (see Matthew 22:46). But he was finally crucified like a common criminal. Jesus told his disciples over and over that he was going to be rejected in Jerusalem and crucified. But the disciples did not understand until it happened apparently. Jesus thought of it as God's purpose for him to die for others sins. He did not do it for some sort of sick glory for himself. He did not even try to defend himself at his own trial. He allowed himself to be taken and abused by the authorities when he would have had the power to stop it, since as God's son he could have called down angels to come help him (Matthew 26:53). He told his disciples before it happened that he would rise from the dead, and then he did it, just as he said! He went through slow torture and death for us, if we can just accept it.
The resurrection accounts in the New Testament cannot be explained away in a way that really is plausible. The disciples could not have just taken and hidden the body and made up the resurrection story. It would have taken a small army to get past the Roman guards, the twelve disciples could not have done it. The resurrection was not expected by the disciples when it happened. Some of the disciples had trouble believing the resurrection even after they were told. Also, if the resurrection was made up by the disciples, why would they die for something they would have known was a lie? The tomb was well guarded by Roman soldiers who would normally have been executed if they went to sleep on the job and let something get by them. The resurrection could not have been merely hallucinations either. Jesus appeared in a variety of places and settings, to both individuals and groups, including to people who did not expect it, and to a group of over 500 people. (See I Corinthians 15:3-8). Everything about his life, death, and resurrection points to Jesus being both fully God and fully human, and the only savior of mankind.
A number of people have set out to disprove the Bible and ended up believing it when they seriously looked into it. One famous example of this is Josh McDowell. In practice, people become Christians for personal reasons often having to do with realizing their need for God in some sense. It is not normally a very logical decision to become a Christian, though it could be. It is not that there is no logical reason to become a Christian, there is every logical reason to. But, it takes a major change in someone's heart and mind for them to be ready and willing to make the step of faith. People do not attack Christian beliefs out of logic either, though they may think that they do. It is more often that people just don't want to surrender to God or live his way. They would rather come up with some other world view to explain life to their satisfaction so they can justify their unbelief in the God of the Bible.
I do not mean to condemn people who do not believe like I do, because I am not their Judge. But I would like to persuade people to be open to consider Christianity and to have confidence in the reliability and authority of the Bible.
1. Charles Colson on Postmodernism, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/april22/31.96.html
2. Apologetic Press article on the historicity of Jesus Christ, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/157
3. Geisler, Norman, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Books, 1999.
4. McDowell, Josh, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Evidence I and II), Here's Life Publishers
and Campus Crusade for Christ, 1999.
5. McDowell, Josh, The Resurrection Factor, Here's Life Publishers, 1981.
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