Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Philosophy in Evangelism

I’d like to tell you about an encounter I had yesterday with a guy I’ll call “Marv.” I was out to get something to eat, and for some reason I just believed I should talk to this young man. I didn’t know how, so I prayed something would come up naturally. Well, at first, it didn’t, and he was about to leave. So I just approached him and said, “This is something I like to ask people occasionally, and I’m wondering what you think about Jesus.” He politely responded, “Oh, I’m a nihilist.” That piqued my interest, so I told him that I was a PhD student in philosophy. Then he received his order, and headed out the door. Well, I thought, at least I tried.

After I received my own order a minute later, I headed out the door. Marv happened to be sitting outside, and as I bid him a good night, he said something like, “Good luck on your studies!” I took the opportunity to come back to him and began discussing nihilism and its attendant philosophy. He was very receptive to what I had to say, and I listened to Marv as well.

Ours was far more of a discussion than a debate. His story was that he grew up in a Southern Baptist home, but the youth group didn’t really do anything. He found himself not believing in what he had been taught at all, and at age 18 he faced an ultimatum: go to church seemingly every time the doors were open, or else move out. He chose to move out, and it sounded as though the relationship with his family and Christianity is still rough.

This was one of the few times that I have been able to use philosophy explicitly and in person in an evangelistic conversation. Marv eventually admitted that it seemed that there really is something we sense that is right or wrong about something, and not just for our culture, but for everyone; and that if there is such a thing—indeed, if there is anything beyond the physical in any way at all—then nihilism as a comprehensive worldview is false. He agreed that the world is broken due to the evil that we all commit, and he listened as I explained the Gospel.

In the end, he agreed to read the Gospel of Mark and pay attention to Jesus in it. He also appreciated any prayer. Near the end of our discussions of epistemology, ontology, morality, the will to power, brokenness, and the Gospel, I told him, “I’m telling you this because I care. In fact, I was praying about how to talk to you naturally about this, and you study philosophy and I study philosophy. Now it could be just a coincidence, but maybe, maybe, God is trying to tell you something.” He agreed to think about what I said.

He’s twenty years old, is respectful, and readily admits that he doesn’t know everything. He could really use our prayers. This post is not to toot my own horn—please understand all glory goes to God. Instead, this post is to serve two functions: 1. Please be obedient to try to share the Gospel. The worst thing to take place is that you won’t know something (and you can always find out and get back to them!) or that you’ll be rejected, just like Jesus. 2. Philosophy can easily be used in conversational evangelism, like it was with “Marv,” by asking people questions about their worldview, and then asking follow-up questions. For example, when people say morality is nothing but a social construct, you can ask their reasons for thinking that. Or else, ask if there really is a sense that some things are wrong for all, and if that might point to something greater than ourselves. In any case, philosophy really does help, as our God is a God of truth!

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Simple Test for Atheists

I was thinking this morning about a single question for people who announce they are atheists with four possible responses. This is not a trap question, but it could be an interesting and non-threatening way to start a dialogue. The question would go something like this:

On a scale of 1-4, how confident are you that there is no God?

By “God,” we mean the God of perfect being theology.[1] The responses would look something like this:

1.     Not confident, but there is enough evidence against God to justify my unbelief.
2.     Somewhat confident; there is enough evidence to justify my unbelief and to make theists seriously consider giving up belief in God, too.
3.     Very confident; there is enough evidence such that everyone lacks justification for belief in God.
4.     Extremely confident; near certainty; there is enough evidence such that it is irrational to hold belief in God.

Assuming the atheist answers honestly, you now have a starting point to question them. Too often, the theist (and Christian) is instantly put on the defensive. Instead of that, this helps atheists to see they are making some kind of claim, and a burden of proof rests upon them to show why others should agree with them. There is also an interesting psychology that can go along with this. For example, while (4) has the biggest payoff (you get to say all believers are irrational!), it also has the largest burden (just consider: (4) as a position is invalidated just in case there is not enough evidence such that every last theist in the entire world is irrational for being a theist!). On the other end of the scale, while (1) has the smallest payoff (you can’t even guarantee that any theists are even so much as slightly unjustified in being so), it also shoulders a relatively small burden of proof—and even places one on the theist who insists that the atheist is not justified.

(2) is also a fairly moderate claim. It doesn’t even claim that theists are unjustified; simply that the evidence for atheism is strong enough to warrant a serious look, and of course that it warrants the justification of belief in atheism by the unbeliever. (3) is interesting, for it is a strong claim without being the kind of claim that (4) is. Well, it actually depends: some people tend not to make any kind of distinction between justification and rationality; if there is no such distinction, then (3) collapses into (4). What do you guys think?

[1] While I am a Christian, and this is the most important thing about me, I’m interested in discovering if the atheist has ruled out the type of being we would call God, full stop, or if hers is mainly a complaint about Christianity or other major world religions.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Why Didn't God Stop Satan?

I heard my niece repeat her question from the Bible study last night. Jodi and I were talking to her sister and their family over Skype (they’re serving as missionaries in another country). I didn’t think that now was the time to jump in with a response, especially because I didn’t know how the question and answer played out in the Bible study itself. But it’s a question that a lot of Christians, not just young people, have pondered. The question is this: If God is all-knowing, wouldn’t he know that Satan was going to be evil, and do something to prevent it? A good question, indeed!

Strictly speaking, this does not merely assume God’s omniscience. It also assumes his omnibenevolence, or all-goodness. It also assumes his omnipotence (or at least a faculty of powers such that he could overcome Satan’s intentions). This is fine, for these things are part and parcel of historic Christianity. But then why didn’t God do something about it?

I think the key lies in the concept of love. God wants his creatures to love him (those that are capable of loving). At some level, and at some time, it appears Lucifer (Satan’s angelic name) had the ability to love God (and perhaps most or even all of the angels have had such an opportunity also). But to be in a love relationship requires two or more participants and a response that freely chooses love.

This makes sense, at least intuitively, right? Consider a man who wanted a woman to love him. She didn’t seem to at first, so he breaks out his magic spell. The magic spell makes it to where she fawns all over him, and even causes her to desire only him.[1] But can she be really said to love him? At the very least, we recognize she lacks something crucially important to love relationships: that she at least should choose to want to love him (or at least should choose to want to choose, if such a thing be demanded). Instead, this was foisted upon her. Her response is no different from an automaton.

So then, love requires freedom of choice at some level. Now the reason God doesn’t intervene is because if a choice is to be successfully made, it must be free. If God mitigates the choice when Satan tries to reject him, then it’s not really a choice (that is, forcing Satan to choose God in the event that Satan tries to reject him[2]. So God allows his choice to be real, and have real consequences. But why would God, knowing that his world would go so wrong, still stick with it? For a few reasons: 1. The love relationship God deems to be worth it. That should be humbling! 2. God knows something we don’t.[3] It may be that only in this type of a world would we get the number of saved freely trusting in Christ and living in eternal bliss with him, with the low-balance to minimize the lost.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

[1] Thanks to Jerry Walls for a relevantly similar example.

[2] Frankfurt examples are interesting here, but not directly relevant, since on this discussion it’s not the case that Satan chooses and God does not intervene. On this supposition, Satan does not choose God and God has to intervene. Frankfurt examples tend to lose their intuitive force on these situations.

[3] I once heard Tim McGrew say this.