Why I Am a Christian

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Why I Am a Christian

     The short answer, of course, is that I was blessed to have been brought up that way. I have always felt God's guiding hand on my shoulder. I have always lived in His presence, and known the peace of mind and the exaltation that brings. But when you grow to man's estate, and it is obvious that what you were taught is rejected by many, it behoves you to determine whether it can be justified intellectually as well as experientially.
     For myself, my degrees were in science, with particular emphasis on zoology. But over the decades I have sought to satisfy my curiosity about such fields as history, anthropology, and psychology. A cynic once declared that I have read widely, but not deeply. By that as it may, it provides an advantage over those whose studies have been intense in a single field and limited in others. It has always appeared incongruous to me that any educated person could be a non-believer - especially if his field is astronomy or ancient history, when he must face the issues head on.
     Certainly, there is a lot of foggy thinking going around, and people will apply to religion arguments which they would never consciously address to the natural world. If you examine them carefully, you will see that almost all objections to Christianity fall into two categories: "I don't like it", and "I don't understand it".
     "I don't like it." For that matter, I don't like the incessant advice that, in order to stay healthy, I must avoid the sun, get more exercise, and eat less of the foods I enjoy. Nevertheless, I recognize that whether a proposition is true or not has nothing to do with whether I like it. However, even otherwise intelligent people, such as Bertrand Russell will declare that Christianity must be false because they object to some of its moral strictures, or consider God's judgments unfair, or do not like His plan of salvation or, by and large, think that they would have done a better job of running the universe if they were God.
     "I don't understand it." All too often, people reject the Christian message because they cannot fully understand some part of it, such as the Trinity, or how human freedom can coexist with divine omnipotence and omniscience, or why good people suffer, or how the death of Jesus could atone for sins. But when it comes to the natural world, it is common for people to believe something without understanding it. For more than 300 years people have believed in gravity, but if you were to ask them how it is possible for two objects to attract each other at a distance, not one person in a million could provide an answer (and that answer would probably be wrong!). If you then asked why they believe it, they would most likely say that the evidence shows that it must be so, even if we don't know how, or (probably the real reason) because the wise men of our tribe say so, and they know best. It might not be inappropriate, then, to adopt the same attitude to religion. You might also consider that, by definition, the Creator of the universe will be beyond the power of the human mind to comprehend.
     Implicit also in the "I don't understand" viewpoint is the assumption that Christianity was produced by people sitting down and thinking about it. If so, then obviously, it would be only as strong as the weakest link in its chain of reasoning. But, of course, that is not how it is. Christianity claims to be based on revelation: on information handed down from heaven, which the human mind would never have attained by its own efforts. It is right and proper, of course, to examine whether the claim to revelation is accurate, but if it is, it does not need to be understood to be believed.
     Likewise, people who proclaim that there is "no evidence" or "no proof" of the existence of God, by and large, don't know what these terms mean. Proof is an elastic concept. You can prove a mathematical theorem by logic alone, but nearly everything else in life involves incomplete information and a variable amount of uncertainty. In law, we use a different standard of proof for criminal trials than for civil claims, while scientists talk about degrees of probability and margins of error.
     As for evidence, this means anything which points to a specific conclusion. Evidence may be strong or weak, ambiguous, conclusive or inconclusive, and still be evidence. Also, just as many weak strands can combine to produce a strong cord, strands of evidence which are individually weak can become strong in the aggregate. On a biology website a scientist objected to the demands of some ignorant creationists to provide a single, definitive "proof" of evolution. That's not how science works, he explained. For any individual item of evidence you can suggest a rival hypothesis, but the real question is whether the same can be done for the total mass of evidence. This, of course, is common sense. If, for instance, you wish to prove anthropogenic global warming, it is the big picture that is important. Any single item of evidence can be countered.
     What one tends to forget is that the same thing applies to religion. If you start off with the premise that God does not exist, you can find a counter explanation for any argument in God's favour. If your premise is correct, this should not be difficult. If, however, you are wrong, you will find yourself producing increasingly more convoluted logical gymnastics in order to avoid the obvious solution.
      You will never be 99% certain that God exists, and that Jesus is the Savour. However, I doubt that you ever made any of the big decisions in life, such as choosing a career or a spouse, with this level of certainty. I would argue that the probability that the Christian message is true is a lot closer to 99% than 50%. But even if you rate the probability much lower, there is still the point made by the early scientist, Blaise Pascal 350 years ago: when judging the existence of God, a false negative, ie deciding that God doesn't exist when He in fact does, has much more serious consequences than a false positive ie believing in a God who doesn't exist.
     With this background, let me provide a few reasons why I am a Christian: arguments which really deserve a whole book  to do them justice, rather than a single essay such as this. So I do not expect this abbreviated summary to convince anybody. I hope and pray, however, that they will at least open your eyes to the issues, and encourage you to investigate further.

     (1) Every society on earth possesses a religion - no exceptions. Individuals may believe less, but societies merely change from one religion to another. Only three examples are recorded of societies which based themselves specifically on the rejection of religion: the French Revolution, the Nazis, and the Communists, and their histories leave no cause for optimism regarding either the humanity or the longevity of such experiments. Religion is as fundamental to human society as language, and the comparison is valid in two respects: every individual has to learn both his language and his religion from his society and, just as all languages have certain basic features in common, all religions are variations on a theme. Furthermore, even the irreligious recognize that there is such a thing as a "religion experience", and that it is more than merely an intellectual assent to a doctrine. There have even been experiments which suggest that the brain is hard-wired for it.
     Not only that, but even those who reject the concept of God tend to speak and act in religious manners. They talk about Nature with a capital "N", they tend to feel that whatever happens to them happens for a reason, and that life must have some meaning or purpose. In their search for something to which to dedicate their lives, they all too often seek out social or political causes as substitute religions.
     All this is evidence - not proof, but evidence - that God has written His word in our hearts. "You have made us for Yourself," says St Augustine, addressing God in his Confessions, "and our hearts are restless, until they find rest in You."

    (2) A hundred years ago it was possible to imagine that the universe had always existed, but not anymore. One of the best established discoveries of the twentieth century is that the universe came into existence in an instant of time 13.7 billion years ago, and how that could have happened without a Creator has been the source of some of the most convoluted mental gymnastics ever devised. Furthermore, it is well established that even a minor difference in any of the fundamental physical variables would have made intelligent life impossible. But the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life, whose emergence appears to have been inevitable from the beginning. It's called the "anthropic principle", and it drives cosmologists crazy.
     I once read an article by a cosmologist who listed all the models of the universe. The obvious one, intelligent design he rejected on the specious grounds that we cannot then make any scientific statements about God. (Of course we can't! But he might have then asked whether God had provided any self-revelation.) In the end, the model he opted for was the "absurd universe". In other words, the universe exists, it came into existence mysteriously, and it makes no sense.
     Personally, I cannot bring myself to believe something absurd, but this educated man obviously has more faith than I have - albeit it is not the Christian faith, but faith in a non-God. And the irony is, so many non-believers proclaim that faith is contrary to reason. Another highly educated man, the Rev. Mr. Robert Hart, after describing miracles he had himself witnessed (we shall return to that later), put it succinctly:
The problem is partly a philosophical void: the Rationalist cannot use his mind rationally. Anyone who notices that the universe just happens to exist, is living all the time with the evidence of the first miracle of the Bible, the Creatio ex nihilo.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
     (3) Admittedly, the above two points favour the existence of God, but not a particular God. However, the evidence is that, after long preparation, and in the fullness of time, God did reveal Himself to mankind by entering His creation and taking upon Himself our human nature, as the man, Jesus Christ. His claims to divinity were demonstrated by the miracles He performed, especially the great miracle, rising from the dead. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching  is in vain and your faith is in vain," said St Paul (1 Cor 15:14). In other words, Christianity has what science insists is a prerequisite of a good theory: it is falsifiable. If it can be shown that Christ did not rise from the dead, then we must give up on Christianity and look for truth elsewhere. Like the theory of evolution, it is something which cannot be disproved by any single item of proof, but we can certainly imagine a number of lines of evidence which, in combination, would make the doctrine of Christ's resurrection extremely improbable.
     But that's not how things have turned out. Our generation is blessed in that we no longer need to accept the New Testament on faith; all we have to do is judge it on the same basis as other historical documents. And here the New Testament is at an advantage. There are far more completed manuscripts, as well as manuscript fragments, and they are many centuries earlier than for those of any of the well established secular documents of the same period. They were being quoted by Christian writers as early as the end of the first century, and extensively quoted in the second. They have been analysed, re-analysed, picked over, and sifted in far greater detail than any other historical document. There is now no reasonable doubt that most, probably all, of the books of the New Testament were written within the lifetime of the eye-witnesses, and most likely by the authors to whom they have been ascribed. Indeed, the earliest account of Jesus' resurrection is not in the gospels, but in St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15: 3-8), which can be shown to have been written no more than a quarter century after the events in question - and it is clear it was an established message long before that.
     Indeed, anyone who reads the gospels, and who is capable of seeing the forest as well as the trees, will notice one significant sign of authenticity: Jesus' style is quite unique, and very distinct from the those of his contemporaries, including his immediate followers. This is just one of many lines of evidence by which scholars have established the accuracy of the narrative.
     It is interesting to note how scholarly critics of the New Testament narrative have been progressively shifting ground. Once it was possible to argue that Jesus never existed, or was the product of some ancient fertility myth, but no reputable scholar makes such a claim today. When I was a boy, I was told that no-one really knew who wrote the gospels, but that they were certainly written some hundreds of years after the event. Even then, that contention was more than sixty years out of date, and only demonstrated how misconceptions can exist in the public domain long after the experts have abandoned them. Since then, I had heard it admitted that, yes, the gospels were written only thirty or forty years after the event, but that makes them unreliable - even though this would never be asserted for other ancient documents. When critics are progressively surrendering ground and retreating, you know their case is weak.
      Most significant of all is that, almost without exception, critics are guilty of the logical fallacy of begging the question. They start off with the premise that the supernatural, particularly involving miracles and resurrection, is impossible. Because the supernatural is the entire focus of the gospels, they then conclude that they must be unreliable. They then cherry pick the data and come up with a theory (these theories are always quite different from each other) of what "really" happened. They then announce that they have "disproved" the gospels. All you have to do to collapse this house of cards is to discard the first premise, regard the possibility of the supernatural as an open question, and simply treat the New Testament as you would any other ancient writing.
     In this small article it is not possible to expand this third point further, for it really requires a whole book of its own. There are many on the market. Two that I found particularly useful when I was young were The Gospels and the Jesus of History by Xavier Léon-Dufour, and The New Testament Documents by F. F. Bruce, but a vast amount of information is available, both in libraries and on the internet. You owe it to yourself to investigate it, because if it is true, your eternal destiny hangs on it. To quote C. S. Lewis: "You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know that you ought to be a man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sands."

     (4) If you keep your eyes and your mind open, you will see that God still intervenes supernaturally in human affairs. I have written about many examples elsewhere. St Paul was once a persecutor of the faith, who was converted by an overwhelming vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road. Similar conversions still happen today. Perhaps even more amazing is the growing number of Muslims, from many different countries, who are being converted by dreams and visions of Jesus. I can refer you, too, to healing miracles and exorcisms.
     Since the publication, in 1975, of Raymond Moody's book, Life After Life there has been great interest in near death experiences (NDEs) occurring when people are temporarily, but clinically, dead. Their characteristics tend to be variations on a theme, and typically involve meeting a Being of Light whom the experiencer usually interprets as God in whatever way he imagines Him, who radiates an overwhelming, unconditional love, and who shows that person a review of his life, which is judged according to how he expressed love. How interesting that this should happen, considering how the Bible proclaims that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), and that God commanded his followers to love one another (John 15:17)!

     (5) It works. In science this is considered a major indication that an hypothesis is correct.
     Jesus told His disciplines to become the yeast of society. Yeast, of course, raises the whole lump, but its effects are limited if its quantity is small and, of course, it takes time. But we saw its workings when the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity and, bit by bit, obscene theatre, horse races, and gladiatorial contests were replaced by hospitals and alms-houses. It was the church which introduced social welfare to Europe, and remained virtually its sole provider until recently. Bertrand Russell once claimed that "religion" (in the abstract) originated from a time "more cruel" than our own. It apparently didn't occur to him that the fact that our society is now less cruel might have something to do with the specific religion in which it has developed.
    The "new atheists", who assert that it is possible to be both an atheist and moral, have missed the point. No-one asks whether a person can be both Christian and moral. It is taken for granted, even expected. If a Christian behaves badly, he is called a hypocrite, because we know he has violated his proclaimed principles. We don't necessarily assume that an atheist will be bad, but if he is, at least no-one accuses him of hypocrisy, because we do not know what his principles may be. An unbeliever must find his own principles, and usually that means absorbing them from his society - and that society has been saturated with Christianity for centuries. They are living on the moral capital of previous generations. Indeed, the social problems of our age are largely due to the fact that this moral capital is drying up. Many of the principles which the irreligious take for granted they acquired from their Christian background - such as the idea that society should take care of those unable to care for themselves ie that we are our brother's keeper, plus the belief in the equal value of every human being, irrespective of birth, race, or social status, and the equal value of women and men. Such principles were practically unknown in the ancient world, and are weakly developed, if at all, in non-Christian societies. Their current growing acceptance among the latter is a result of exposure to western civilisation. Western civilisation, an anti-Christian Hindu website correctly pointed out, is "subliminally Christian".
     As with society, so with the individual. You will not need to search hard among Christian testimonies to find lost people, broken people, even wicked people, whose lives have been turned around and dramatically transformed by the grace of God. When I was being taught science at high school, I was told that the test of an hypothesis is whether it can be the basis of successful predictions. Well, the Bible certainly makes predictions which can be shown to be correct by common experience.
  • In Your presence there is fullness of joy, in Your right hand are pleasures for evermore. (Ps 16:11)
  • The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace ... (Gal 5:22)
  • The peace of God, which passes all understanding ... (Phil 4:7)
  • My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. (John 14:27)
  • By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another. (John 13:35)
  • Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28)
  • My yoke is easy, and My burden is light. (Matt 11:30)
  • Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. (Matt 7:24-25)
    Since these promises are demonstrably true, as any follower of Christ can testify from experience, I don't see why we should hesitate to rely on the rest of His words. I am reminded of the explanation a certain woman gave of how she became a Christian. A friend had advised her: "Try it as an experiment. Live for a year as if it were true. Go to church, read the Bible, pray for guidance, trust in God and see if He delivers." She knew that He would.
     For those who are interested, I have written other essays on theology here.