My friend Neil Shenvi posted this New York Times on Facebook, and I had to blog about it. Although I am more conservative than Tim Keller on many issues (economics, race issues, intelligent design), he does a pretty good job of explaining and defending basic Christian doctrines to Nicholas Kristof. Kristof one the secular leftist columnists who writes for the New York Times, which is one the most secular and most leftist media sources.
The format of the article is question and answer, and I’ll choose a few that I really liked. (The questions were all good, by the way)
But let me push back. As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?
I wouldn’t characterize the New Testament descriptions of the risen Jesus as fuzzy. They are very concrete in their details. Yes, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, but then she does. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) also don’t recognize Jesus at first. Their experience was analogous to meeting someone you last saw as a child 20 years ago. Many historians have argued that this has the ring of eyewitness authenticity. If you were making up a story about the Resurrection, would you have imagined that Jesus was altered enough to not be identified immediately but not so much that he couldn’t be recognized after a few moments? As for Mark’s gospel, yes, it ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us.
Skeptics should consider another surprising aspect of these accounts. Mary Magdalene is named as the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, and other women are mentioned as the earliest eyewitnesses in the other gospels, too. This was a time in which the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in courts because of their low social status. The early pagan critics of Christianity latched on to this and dismissed the Resurrection as the word of “hysterical females.” If the gospel writers were inventing these narratives, they would never have put women in them. So they didn’t invent them.
The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection. N.T. Wright has argued in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” that it is difficult to come up with any historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian movement. It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical. The best explanation for the change was that many hundreds of them had actually seen Jesus with their own eyes.
The part in bold is what distinguishes a person who has studied apologetics from the average Jesus-hollering Bible thumper who cannot speak except in Bible verses. We have too few people who can argue historical analysis (e.g. – the criterion of embarassment) and quote authorities on the historical Jesus (e.g. – N.T. Wright). I really think that we need to start shaming people who argue for Christianity by quoting the Bible, as if non-Christians accept the Bible without any kind of historical analysis.
What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?
The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:
You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.
Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”
I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.
There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.
As you can see from the article, Christians can and should prepare themselves to answer these basic questions, because there are a lot of people on the secular left who can’t find anyone who can answer them. We lose a lot of young people because we focus too much on feeling good and being liked, not enough on giving other people’s questions the respect they deserve. Keller quotes historians like Wright and philosophers like Plantinga. He defends the Bible verses he cites using the criteria of embarrassment. He defends the existence of God by appealing the creation (Big Bang cosmology) and design of the universe (cosmic fine-tuning). If questioned, I know from his writings that Keller is able to put scientific meat on his assertions. It is very important that Christians understand that Christianity is a religion that from the beginning was started by a man who appealed to evidence (miracles) to ground his claims.
As you can see from Keller’s responses, there is a lot more to defending the faith than simply quoting the Bible as if non-Christians all believed it. Some pastors do that – citing the Bible as if just saying the words will have a magical effect on people’s views. I call this the “magic words” approach to apologetics, and it’s not Biblical. The right way to defend the faith is to put more effort into it – crafting responses that are persuasive and effective with your intended audience.