Christian case maker warns Christians to trust the evidence, not their feelings

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Alisa Childers posted a review of a recent dialog between Dr. Sean McDowell and former-Christian Bart Campolo, son of far-left progressive fake Christian Tony Campolo. The dialog occurred on the Unbelievable radio show.

Here’s an exerpt from Alisa’s review:

Recently, the two came together to have a discussion on Premier Christian Radio entitled, “Why Bart Lost His Faith, Why Sean Kept His.” It was a fascinating discussion, and the thing that most struck me was the reason they each gave for having become a Christian in the first place. Campolo described how he converted to Christianity after finding a youth group he connected with and attending one of their retreats:

There’s hundreds of kids there. It’s Saturday night, there’s candlelight and firelight and everybody’s singing “Our God is an Awesome God,” and “We Love You Lord.” And in the midst of that kind of environment I had what I guess you would call a transcendent moment…I felt something. It felt like there was something happening  in that room that was bigger than the group. I felt like I was connecting to something. And in that moment ….that was God.

I heard something. It was real to me. People that don’t believe in transcendent experiences—I always think like, “You haven’t been to the right concert… You haven’t used the right drugs. You haven’t fallen in love with the right partner.”

These experiences are real, and I think whatever narrative you’re in when you have one, it confirms that narrative. If I would have had that same transcendent moment with my friends in a mosque in Afghanistan, it would have confirmed Islam to me. But I was in the Christian world, so from that point on, Jesus was real to me.

In Campolo’s own words, he became a  Christian because of a transcendent experience….a feeling that resonated deeply in his heart.

He had a feeling, and he took that feeling as a reason for believing propositional claims about the external world. God’s existence? He had a feeling. Christ’s resurrection? He had a feeling. The reliability of the Bible? He had a feeling. Instead of focusing on truth, he spent his early life pursuing social justice. He didn’t look at evidence, he just tried to have experiences. He tried to chase feelings by having little Christian ministry adventures. Missions trips. Volunteer work. Community. Charismatic speaking to crowds about things he knew literally nothing about.

Further on in the dialog, he explains that his standard for allegiance is not truth, it’s literally “what works”. And he clarifies “what causes [people] to thrive, what causes [people] to flourish”. His emphasis (in his ministry) was always on feeling good by being nice to people, because they liked him. This perspective is rampant in the evangelical church, especially among progressive young people. The idea of testing the Christian worldview against science and history to see if it is true is absolutely out. Instead, it’s all about feeling good and making people like you by being nice to them.

Experiences made him an atheist. He worked with poor people, and he decided that God didn’t exist because he wasn’t making these people happy. He had gay roommates in college, so he decided that the Bible’s rules around sexual morality had to be wrong. Never any investigation of economics to understand poverty, no investigation of homosexuality in the peer-reviewed literature, etc. It was feelings all the way. A bit later, Campolo extols the virtue of blind faith, and blasts apologetics as ineffective at changing minds. And then later, he has a bicycle crash, and he becomes convinced from that accident that “this life is all we have”. So he disproved substance dualism, which is consistent with the Bible and supported by multiple lines of philosophical argumentation and experimental evidence… by having feelings about a bicycle crash.

Now, on this blog, we despise feelings and experiences. We discuss scientific evidence for a Creator and a Designer all the time. The origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitality requirements, etc. For Campolo, Christianity was never about truth, and so he never conducted an investigation about whether it was true. The only God he would accept was a god who “worked for him” – who made him feel good, and who made people (including non-Christians) like him. It was all about him, never about adjusting himself to an objective reality that might have involved obedience to God, having some bad feelings, and being disliked by non-Christians.

The more emphasis that a person places on feelings, intuitions, travel, adventure, and social justice, the farther away they tend to be from analytical philosophy, historical investigation, scientific evidence, etc. You cannot establish the truth of a worldview by going on a missions trip to Haiti, or by holding orphans in Bolivia. The truth of Christianity is known through study of reality, using logic, science and historical analysis. Making feelings the foundation for a worldview is just a disaster waiting to happen.

Alisa has some words of caution to young Christians and their parents about experience as the root of a Christian worldview:

  1. You can be talked out of an experience.
  2. Your heart and feelings lie.
  3. You can fall back on evidence in times of doubt or suffering.

Here is number 2:

The prophet Jeremiah described the human heart as “deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” Proverbs 3:5-7 tells us not to “lean on our own understanding.” Jesus described the human heart as being filled with thoughts like murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. Proverbs 28:26 tells us that whoever trusts his own mind is a fool.

In other words, do not, under any circumstances, follow your heart.

This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the themes we are constantly encountering in entertainment and on social media. However, when it comes to spiritual beliefs, trusting our hearts and following our feelings can lead to all sorts of aberrant theology, sinful choices, and a distortion of true Christian faith.

See that?

“In other words, do not, under any circumstances, follow your heart.”

We need more Christians saying this in the church. Especially Christian women – it’s better when women put evidence at the center of the Christian life, and push feelings out to the edges.

By the way, she mentions a quotation from J. Warner Wallace about not being a Christian because “it works for me“. I wrote a whole post about this.

If you want to read another deconversion story that shows how a focus on feelings and experiences leads to atheism, check out the story of Dan Barker. I know so many people who were raised in the church by pastors who were anxious to “protect” Christian truth claims from  being proved or disproved by evidence. They thought that their approach was more pious – how dare we let science and history stand in judgment over the Bible? When I look at Dan Barker and Bart Campolo, I can see where that fideism ended up. Piety is a cheap way of gaining respect without having done any work. We need to demand better from pastors. They ought to be able to show their work. They ought to be able to demonstrate what reasoning and evidence led them to their convictions. Not their feelings and experiences, but actual reasoning and evidence.

The sooner we get to the point where Christianity is true because of reason and evidence, regardless of individual feelings, the better off we will be at being authentic followers of Jesus.

Finally, if you liked the Unbelievable show dialog between McDowell and Campolo, there is a 3-hour discussion on the same topic, which was held at the Faith Beyond Belief conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada last week. The video has been posted on YouTube.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

16 thoughts on “Christian case maker warns Christians to trust the evidence, not their feelings”

  1. I’ve had more spiritual growth in the years after I decided to stop seeking a “feeling” than prior, when I was bummed that I wasn’t getting that “feeling” everyone talks about. Feelings are fickle: Here one moment gone the next. They are unreliable, which is likely why the bible doesn’t advise allowing women to lead. Not a country, not a church, not a man.

    I think, due to modern advances in technology, a lot of Christians view their belief in God as something based in the ancient and mystic. They don’t equate science and evidence as proof of God, His creation and His truth, so they don’t look to either as such. They think that, since we are moved in the spirit, that the spirit dwells within us, that their evidence is purely internal and that they will FEEL it in their spirit when the chord strikes true.

    I’m sure satan loves that concept.

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  2. I like most of your essays/posts, but this one deeply resonated with me. The deviations of feelings vs. evidence that is consistent/testable. My simplistic summary, but a solid post. If more people would use logic and reason to formulate a conclusion. I blather on. Keep these coming!

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  3. I remember two things that were discussed in high school Sunday night youth. The first was subjugating feelings to facts (use facts to determine what you do instead of what you feel). The second was a survey of world religions and what each of them says about Jesus Christ (and why that is wrong – doesn’t line up with the facts – which makes the whole thing wrong).

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    1. Awww. And did that make you feel bad, because you wanted all the non Christians to like you? Did you think Christianity wasn’t for you at that point, because it was too mean and divisive?

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      1. Not really, I had already decided that the people at school weren’t going to like me on the basis of a complete lack of interest on my part in frivolous and superficial games. My father and mother did a good job of teaching Truth and priorities. The personal opinions of people who aren’t acknowledging Truth and thus have skewed priorities really don’t matter.

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        1. Oh thank God, I was just trying to be nice, but really I was horrified at the thought that you might have changed your worldview just because it was exclusive of others. Can you imagine if people stopped believing in math because it made the kids who were bad at math feel bad? Gee Mr. Mormon, sorry you believe in an eternal universe but you’re justfactually wrong about that, and your tears don’t make me change my mind, because I’m not so desperate to be liked by you that I’m giving up Astrophysics.

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          1. My apologies, I didn’t do a very good job of emphasizing that I agreed with the gentleman who was teaching the class and that teaching high school age kids to evaluate information on the basis of truth rather than feelings is appropriate.

            As an aside, you would like him. I’m pretty sure that he put the eternal universe of Mormonism on the list of “why this is not true”.

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          2. Wow, that actually amazing. Most people don’t like to compare Christian claims to generally accepted evidence in Sunday school! You did well to stick with them.

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    2. Just after 9/11, in between the first time I taught apologetics at my church and the second formal/official “apologetics” class that I taught, I organized and facilitated a “World Religions from a Christian Perspective” class, which I also half-jokingly referred to as “apologetics of a different flavor.” I highly recommend that kind of class — not just surveying world religions and what each says about Jesus Christ — but also knowing some points of contact (key points of similarity and difference).

      I had a number of subject experts ranging from the director of training for Arab World Missions/a missionary for 25 years in Muslim countries in North Africa, a Kolkatan man who has gone on to become the president of Bengali Christian Ministry, a couple of former atheists and agnostics who became convinced of Christianity’s truth and love apologetics, a completed Jew/Messianic Jew, a Reformed Jew who became Christian, etc.

      We covered: Islam, Buddhism (including some variants), Hinduism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Secular Humanism, Wicca, Paganism, the Occult, Judaism. [It would have been nice to have further resources like the late Nabeel Qureshi’s “Seeking Allah, Finding Christ,” Dr. Michael Brown’s resources, Eric Chabot’s writings, and so on.]

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  4. Unfortunately, the feelings and mystical experiences run rampant in the church — for instance,
    The pastor who oversaw my church’s singles’ ministry told me that the most common narrative that young people wanted in terms of meeting their spouse was something like, “I was seeking after God, and God only, I went to X event, I had an amazing experience and felt like I met God/I experienced God, and then kapow! I started talking with a member of the opposite sex who also was doing the same [only seeking after God, not going to meet anyone] and experienced the same and we bonded over this…”

    Ultimately, [good] theology is the most important; it should trump even feelings. All three major branches of the church (Orthodoxy: Desert Fathers, Catholicism: St. John of the Cross, Protestantism: C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters) point out that there will be times where Christians will be doing all the right things but the feelings aren’t going to be there. Spiritual dryness. Not feeling totally fulfilled. God ‘feels’ far off. All three also have insights why God is doing this.

    If the worship music was always virtuosic and uplifting, if the fellowship was always warm and friendly and engaging, if the speaker was always dynamic and eloquent, and so on — all of these factors — we might be tempted to only worship to satisfy our needs, our desires, our wants. Instead, while all of these things are great, they are merely accoutrements of worship — that we ultimately come because we want to give worship to the One who is worthy. In other words, the spiritual dryness or the lack of having feelings of closeness with God refines the very act(s) of obedience. Ultimately, God is trying to have a closer relationship with us by taking away some to all of the accountrements.

    I have also had pastors give sermons in which fact, rationality, and faith (all of which can be in agreement) are supposed to trump feeling. One pastor (who retired, but was in charge of pastoral counseling) gave an example where he was teaching pastoral counseling and pastoral ministry in Kiev. While he was there, someone in the crowd pulled out “a gun” and demanded money. The pastor was scared and alarmed, but his host was not — and the host told this pastor to keep on walking.

    But what about the gun?

    His host observed astutely, “Look more carefully. It’s made out of WOOD.”

    We believe because we know it’s true.
    How do we know it’s true? It’s not just pragmatism or some mystic emotionalism.
    We’ve examined the truthfulness.
    It’s not that “it works, therefore it is true.” It’s “it is true, and because it’s true, it works.”

    Unfortunately sometimes Disney is more powerful than the Bible. Disney has been saying in many of its movies, “Follow your heart,” “Be true to yourself.”

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  5. I had a transcendent experience when I came to know the Lord, when I felt cocooned in a presence, that I later realised was the Holy Spirit, over a period of 3 days (long story). However, it was tied to the Gospel, so I had revelation of who Jesus Christ is and what he did in dying for my sins, as I came under conviction of my sins, so that I repented, asked God to forgive my sins and to save me, and gave my life unconditionally to Jesus as Lord of my life. The feelings were tied to the facts, and I know it was the Holy Spirit who brought revelation, conviction, repentance and faith that I hadn’t had before. (Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would bring conviction of sin and righteousness and judgement). The problem is that the full Gospel is not always preached, especially in churches that are “seeker-sensitive”. Without good discipleship – sound theology, doctrine and hermeneutics – people often go off the rails. However, the parable of the Sower and the seed also applies.

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  6. Nothing is wrong with saying you had times if a real experience with God. They occur. Paul when he was converted was an emotional occurance. God stopping him a day everything it entailed.

    But he had a foundation of teaching in his Hebrew faith along with a time if study and teaching that would have brought him to a deeper faith in Christ

    People like to say God gave them some song or revelation and then people want to act like it must be true and can’t be challenged but the Bible clearly states all forms of teaching or prophecy etc can be judged by scripture. (my definition of prophecy us that a word from God is prophecy. So preach the Bible and I technically call it prophecy not just the mystical type sense people want to use)

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  7. Excellent post. I love the example you provide of two people whose faith was directly affected by how they pursued it. Feelings are fickle and the “follow your heart” idea is a disaster. My kids said the follow your heart thing once because they heard it somewhere and I contradicted them. You only follow your heart if it’s wholly lead by Jesus. It’s only lead by Him if the mind is in pursuit of truth.

    I was blessed to be raised in a family and a church that placed value in hermeneutics, apologetics, and truth. It is my hope to instill that same drive into my children. Feelings only get you so far.

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  8. Even the term heart has become vague in today’s world. Because it has no Christian interpretation to most people they use a purely emotional and feeling based definition of it

    You a Christian following the lead of the spirit of God is true. And the spirit of God will never go against the Bible so it is testable.

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    1. Yes, my advisors and I were actually discussing this. In the absence of any teaching on it, the word heart means “feelings”. Instead. Of meaning the internal core of the person, their overall orientation towards or away from God. And also what an orientation towards God would even look like.

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