Image: “Neighbors,” by PixelPlacebo
In Part 3 I noted that using a “cumulative case” approach is a powerful (but lengthy) way to communicate the claims of the Christian worldview to an atheist friend.
The cumulative case is what an attorney presents in a court of law to build her case—such things as eye-witness testimony plus email records plus motive plus expert opinion plus physical evidence, and so on. Each piece is added to the other pieces, not presented (or considered by a jury) in isolation. It’s the aggregate effect that counts.
Yet, each piece by itself is imperfect. Communication records can be falsified or misinterpreted. Expert opinion is not unanimous, and eye-witnesses often disagree with each other. Physical evidence varies in quality and significance. A committed detractor can provide alternative explanations for almost anything.
And that’s how it is with Christianity. Everything we say about the faith is potentially dismissible. At first this may seem a liability, but I think just the opposite. The dismissibility of the evidence and argumentation for Christianity allows space for skeptics to freely disbelieve.
Proof, on the other hand, would not be dismissible. If an omnipotent, omniscient being proved himself to us, every reasonable person would be forced to believe. A giant elephant would be present in the room and not even a hardened skeptic could ignore it.
But the God of the Bible desires us to come into a familial relationship with him of our own choosing. It’s an invitation to love, and love requires the freedom to accept or decline; it can’t be coerced.
Philosopher Stephan Evans has formalized the potential dismissibility of Christianity into what he calls the “Easy Resistibility Principle.” But he also balances it with the “Wide Accessibility Principle,” which means God’s self-revelation is accessible to anyone with an open mind and heart.
So the case for faith is both accessible and resistible. An ordinary person who’s not a scholar has the opportunity to find God. There is plenty of evidence available. But the evidence can also be reinterpreted and dismissed by a persistent skeptic. Alternative explanations can be given for everything.
What then should we look for in God’s self-revelation, if not proof?
If you read Evans or Timothy Keller or James Sire or N.T. Wright, or, before them, Blaise Pascal (and many others), the answer, to summarize, is this: clues and signs. God has planted clues and signs of his existence and love everywhere. One just needs the eyes to see them. And that requires an essential posture of curiosity and openness.
One sign is the beauty and purposeful order of nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist writes, “and the sky proclaims his handiwork.” In the NT, the Apostle Paul points out to the Roman church that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are plain to humankind.
This clue of God’s glory in nature is both widely accessible (plain to all) but easily resistible (explainable in other terms).
Recently my friend Tarah experienced miraculous restoration of hearing in her right ear, after persistent prayer of several months. This is a clue of God’s goodness. Anyone could talk with Tarah or read the chart from the audiologist, so the miracle (and many others like it; just start asking around in churches) is widely accessible. Yet it can be explained away without God as well.
I mentioned Tarah’s miracle to an atheist friend. He countered that it wasn’t proof and that lots of other people don’t experience healing after prayer, and that “studies show . . .” Exactly. It’s not proof. It’s a clue. When you add all the clues together from nature and science and history and philosophy—and every discipline—and confirm it with the experience of knowing and loving Christ, you’ve got excellent reasons to believe. The pieces all fit neatly (if not perfectly) into an enormous jigsaw puzzle, a complete worldview that offers massive explanatory power for all human experience. Personally, I find this very exciting.
Nor is the cumulative case just for believers. Curious nonChristians often come to faith by journeying through various aspects of the case. It’s part of the appeal of joining the family of God.
The Main Clue
We could examine other clues and signs, but I’d like to close this series of posts by mentioning the strongest reason for holding to Christian faith, the reason that sums up all the other reasons, that being Jesus himself.
When I say “Jesus himself” I’m talking about the surprising, ironic, multi-layered revolutionary character of the four Gospel accounts of Mark (likely written first), Matthew, Luke and John (written last). I’m referring to a careful reading of the man who claimed to be the Son of God, who was rejected by many of his own people and at times by his own family, the God-man who extended his personal touch to society’s lower classes—women, Samaritans, tax collectors—and who condemned the ruling religious establishment for its vulnerability to power and pride.
This is the astonishingly subtle Messiah who is symbolized by manger, donkey and cross rather than the ostentatious displays of military/political glory that were available to him as the most powerful force on earth.
The incarnate Christ is widely accessible and yet resistible. Anyone can read the accounts for themselves and find answers to their questions with the help of professional commentators. But Christ can also be dismissed, explained away, rejected. Even when he visited the earth in person, his own “cumulative case” of fulfilling prophecy, of radical teaching and acts of compassion, of miracles and resurrection were not enough to overcome the skepticism of some. They saw and yet disbelieved.
But the case for Christ is compelling, and many will come to know him, even if that process takes time.
An Atheist Finds God
My friend Tom grew up Catholic but abandoned the faith for atheism by the time he entered Notre Dame. There he wrestled with the great questions of philosophy and theology, and maintained a strong skepticism going forward into law school and professional practice for twenty years.
One day I visited Tom’s law office and asked him how the spiritual journey was going.
“Well,” he replied, “I’ve been praying on my way to work every day.”
Did I hear this right?
“Rick, Christianity is true. I’ve become a believer.”
I learned that he’d read a case for the historical Jesus and found it convincing. Just as important as this research, however, was its context: a Lutheran church he’d begun attending with his wife Kathe. The quality of the people there impressed Tom deeply.
The final clincher in his turn to faith was a giant mural of Jesus that hung on a wall in the church. Every time Tom passed the mural in the hallway he pondered the arresting caption underneath: “Who do you say that I am?” He knew it was the pivotal issue of his life, which he finally answered in the affirmative: You are the Christ, the Son of God.
In closing, I ask you: Who is your atheist neighbor?
Entry level resource
- Letters from a Skeptic by Greg Boyd
- Echoes of a Voice: We are not Alone, by James Sire
- Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee, by Mark Strauss
- Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
- Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N. T. Wright
- The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
- Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense by C. Stephen Evans
- Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, by Douglas Groothuis
- Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig
About the author:
Rick Mattson is a national evangelist and apologist for InterVarsity, speaking at over eighty campuses the past few years. He lives in St. Paul, MN with his family. He studied at Bethel Seminary of St. Paul, MN, where he received his masters in the philosophy of religion. As part of his current duties he serves as evangelism coach for graduate students at several universities. Rick's a committed family man and serious golfer. He is the author of two books: Faith is Like Skydiving and Faith Unexpected.