Feb 17, 2009

21st Century Apologetic Challenges

The apologetics conference at Southeastern Bible College on Jan, 30-31 was a smashing success. We had close to 200 people show up and the feedback we received was very positive. The lecture recordings are available at the school website (http://www.sebc.edu/) under the podcast link. For your edification I post below my opening plenary lecture in which I explain what I think will be the most significant apologetic issues the church will face in the next few years.

21st Century Apologetic Challenges

By Steven B. Cowan
Presented at Southeastern Bible College
January 30, 2009

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Pet. 3:15)

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3-5

These text speak to us of the need and obligation of God’s people to engage in the discipline of apologetics; to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. In connection with this biblical mandate we offer this conference on “Defending the Faith in the 21st Century.” And the title of my presentation tonight is “21st Century Apologetic Challenges”. That title might sound a bit presumptuous if understood a certain way. I suppose that one could take this to mean that my talk is about all the issues and topics regarding apologetics—the defense of the Christian faith—that the church will face throughout the 21st century, from the present through 2099. If that were what my talk is about, then I would be very presumptuous indeed and have a pretty high opinion of my prophetic abilities! Of course, there is no way that I can know all the challenges and attacks that Christians will face over the course of the next 91 years. I dare say I can’t even tell you all that we will face in the next ten years.

But what I think I can tell you about are the apologetics challenges that we are now facing or are on the verge of facing, some of which I believe will be significant and on-going challenges for some time to come, perhaps for a decade or two. That is, I can and I will talk to you about what I and other Christian apologists think are the most significant issues in the area of apologetics that we most need to focus our attention on—those things that are or are about to become most pressing; those things that the people in our society who we hope to reach with the gospel will use as reasons or excuses to reject Christianity. These are those issues that every Christian who wants to be salt and light in the world and make a difference for the cause of Christ needs to know something about and “be ready to make a defense for the hope that they have” (1 Pet. 3:15).

The Cultural Status of Christianity
Before I actually lay out these challenges, though, I want to say a few words about the place that Christianity currently occupies in Western and American culture. This is important because it’s our cultural status that partly explains why we are facing the apologetic issues that we are. There are basically two expressions that indicate the current cultural status of Christianity.

First, we must take note that we in the West and even in America live in a post-Christian culture. Most westerners have left Christianity behind. They have “moved on” as it were from what they see as an outmoded, irrelevant religion to other more reasonable and more useful forms of thought and life.

  • The church’s prestige and influence have given way to the authority of science and government.
  • Categories like sin and redemption have given way to the concepts of dysfunction and therapy respectively.
  • Self-sacrifice has been replaced with self-indulgence and self-fulfillment.
  • Moral law has been overshadowed by moral relativism.

There is no longer any belief in the authority or relevance of the Bible. Indeed, there is even precious little knowledge in our society of the Bible’s contents much less any belief in the truth of its contents. Rather than a cultural consensus of real and nominal Christianity, we have today a pluralism of religious beliefs, all seen as equally valid and valuable. There is the firm belief that religious knowledge—real knowledge of religious truths—is unavailable; that all we can truly know is the here and now, the world present to our empirical observations. In a word, secularism.

There is an obsession with personal autonomy and self-expression. My life is my life, and I have the right to do with it as I please without constraint by anyone or anything, least of all by religion and some external system of morality. In the words of Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary,

The worldview of most Americans is now thoroughly secularized, revolving around the self and its concerns, and based on relativism as an axiom. We Americans have become our own best friend, our own therapist, our own priest, and our own lawgiver. The old order is shattered, the new order is upon us.[1]

But, not only do we live in a post-Christian culture, we see evidence all around us that we are increasingly living in an anti-Christian culture. What I mean is that there are elements in Western (even American) culture that are becoming openly hostile toward Christianity. This should not surprise us since the Christian worldview is diametrically opposed the values of the new culture. This hostility comes out in the open whenever Christians stand up to speak out important social issues. Again, to quote Mohler,

To proclaim biblical truth to this culture is to risk social isolation, outright rejection, and, in some cases, potent attacks. . . .The Church which proclaims that adultery, premarital sex, and homosexuality are inherently and unquestionably sinful will quickly discover what it means to be cut off from the cultural mainstream. The preacher who takes on the divorce culture and takes his stand for the enduring covenant of marriage will run into direct confrontation with society's attraction to "open marriage" and what some now describe as "serial monogamy." The Christian who stands in defense of the unborn will be told that her voice is unwanted, unheeded, and unwelcome--and in no uncertain terms.[2]

In some places in the West, strong measures have actually been taken to silence the voice of Christians in the public square. Just a few years ago, a pastor in Sweden was sent to prison for preaching a sermon on Leviticus 18 & 20 condemning homosexuality as sinful. More recently in Canada a Christian was fined $6000 for printing 3 Bible verses against homosexuality, and a pastor was told it is a hate crime to hand out gospel tracts. In great Britain a couple was denied the opportunity to adopt a child because it was alleged that their Christian faith might prejudice them against a homosexual child placed in their care. Also in Canada, a Christian ministry (MacGregor Ministries) lost its tax-exempt status because they insist that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult.

Even in the US, some cities and states have passed legislation that has the effect of limiting free speech on religious and moral issues. A Philadelphia law was used recently to indict 11 Christians for a hate crime for staging a legal protest against homosexual activism. Witness also the huge outcry against pastor Rick Warren’s participation in President Obama’s inauguration ceremony because of the stance his church takes on moral and social issues.

Beyond this, Christianity and Christian believers have become the objects of ridicule and slander. Recall a few years back when a young homosexual man was brutally murdered in Wyoming and Katie Couric on NBC’s Today show said that it was the fault of all the fundamentalist Christians who preach against homosexuality. Recall the recent “documentary” by Bill Mahr, Religulous, that makes fun of religious believers and presents them as fools, idiots, and quacks.

And I hope you haven’t missed the media blitzes that happen every year around Christmas and Easter in which TV networks and news magazines like Time and Newsweek broadcast documentaries and publish articles designed to debunk and discredit Christian beliefs (and never give opportunities for contrary presentations from conservative scholars).

I believe that this hostility against Christianity will only increase in the next few years and become more brazen and bold and dangerous.

This is the cultural position of Christianity in our society—we and our churches are seen as vestiges of a by-gone era that threatens the health and happiness of the new secular world order. In light of our current status, then, what are the apologetic issues that we will face in the coming years?

Three Crucial Challenges
No doubt there are many questions and issues that we will face in the area of apologetics, but I think that there are three that stand out.

First, we will confront continued and rigorous attacks on the authority of the Bible. Challenges to biblical authority and reliability are nothing new, of course, but the nature of the attacks have taken on a different flavor in recent days. There are two specific ways that the Bible is being undermined and dismissed in recent days that many of you may not be familiar with.

The challenge of the so-called pagan roots of Christianity. This challenge is actually quite old. It was a prominent charge over a century ago, that many central Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, and the death and resurrection of Jesus, were simply borrowed by early Christians from ancient pagan myths like that involving the Egyptian god Osiris or the Persian deity Mithras. It is alleged that every popular religion in the ancient world had its myths of virgin-born, dying and rising saviors. If Christianity was going to compete in the first-century market-place of ideas, then it too had to come up with its own story of a virgin-born, dying and rising god. So, the early Christians just took these myths from other religions, tweaked them a little bit and imposed them on the biography of this Palestinian Jew named Jesus. Of course, the implication of all this is that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, he did not die for the sins of the world, and he was not raised from the dead. Such theological beliefs were the invention of the early church.

This theory of the pagan origins of Christianity was laid to rest almost a century ago due to a lack of any concrete evidence for it and the fact that the alleged parallels between the pagan myths and Christian doctrine were superficial at best. Nonetheless, it has come roaring back in recent years. In their recent book, The Laughing Jesus, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy refurbish this old accusation, writing, “The Jesus story has all the hallmarks of a myth. The reason for this is quite simple. It is a myth. Indeed, not only is it a myth, it is a Jewish version of a pagan myth!”[3] This idea has been popularized in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code and in a recent issue of U.S. News and World Report, and other places.

The challenge of an alleged politicized canonization process. New Testament scholars Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels have made a name for themselves in recent years arguing that the New Testament Canon—that collection of books that the church has considered divinely inspired and authoritative—came about primarily as the result of political motives. They allege that in the earliest days of Christianity (i.e., in the mid-to-late first century) there was no settled Christian orthodoxy, no clear definition of what it means to be a Christian—in particular, there was not just one view about the identity and mission of Jesus. Some followers of Jesus thought him divine, others did not. Some thought he brought a social message, others a message about divine redemption, others an esoteric Gnostic teaching. And, of course, associated with all these different “Christianities” were different sets of “scriptures,” different books purporting to give us the right interpretation of Jesus and his message, and none of them had any claim to more legitimacy than any other. For example, there were numerous gospels that circulated besides those found in the NT such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary.

So, why did the books we have in the canon make it in and the others did not? Well, according to scholars like Ehrman and Pagels it was all about power and politics. One particular group of Christians gained the upper hand politically and suppressed the teaching and writings of the others, establishing themselves as orthodox Christianity and the others as heretics. But the so-called orthodox school really has no more claim to legitimacy than those now seen as heretical. Bart Ehrman describes what happened this way:

This one form of Christianity [the party that came to be known as “orthodox”] decided what was the “correct” Christian perspective; it decided who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice; and it determined what forms of Christianity would be marginalized, set aside, destroyed. It also decided which books to canonize into Scripture and which books to set aside as “heretical,” teaching false ideas. . . . And then, as a coup de grace, this victorious party rewrote the history of the controversy, making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times. . ., had always been “orthodox” (i.e., the “right belief”) and that its opponents in the conflict, with their other scriptural texts, had always represented small
splinter group invested in deceiving people into “heresy”. . .[4]

Both of these challenges to the Bible seek to undermine its authority as a word from God. If key Christian doctrines were borrowed from pagan myths, then the message of the gospel is not unique—it’s just one more ancient myth among many. If what we know today as Christianity and its Bible are just one version of a diverse cacophony of Christian voices, one invented by the political machinations of evil men, then again, the message of Scripture is just the message of men and not God. Contemporary Americans may then safely ignore it.

Second, we will confront an ever-bolder, New Atheism. You have all heard of them, the unholy trinity: Richard Dawkins with his book The God Delusion, Sam Harris and his Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. These are the leaders of a new movement of atheists. Of course, atheism has been around for thousands of years, and the US has had a population of atheists hovering around 8 or 9 percent for many decades. But the new atheists are different. They are more vitriolic, more antagonistic toward religion than most of their predecessors. And they are openly evangelistic, seeking to win people to their cause. Why? Because of a couple of twin convictions: (1) religion is dangerous and the source of most of humanity’s problems, and (2) atheistic humanism is the key to the success and happiness of the human race. On the danger of religion, Dawkins has this to say:

I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.[5]
More generally. . .what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them. . .to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades.[6]

Sam Harris writes, “We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man,”[7] and that “no real foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity.”[8]

Now I should say, along with many critics of the new atheists (which includes both religious and non-religious people), that the arguments they give against the existence of God and the danger of religion are quite simply pathetic. They are simplistic and misleading. For example, the best that Dawkins can say in response to the recent intelligent design arguments is,”Who designed God?”—a question both irrelevant and silly. Moreover, these writers often caricature the arguments of their opponents rather than dealing with them in their strongest forms. Nevertheless, their books are huge best-sellers. They are reaching and influencing a very wide audience. No doubt their influence is partly responsible for the increase in the number of self-professed atheists in the nation (from 9 to 11 % in recent years). Where biblical illiteracy abounds and Christians shirk their duty to engage in apologetics, we will only see this movement gain greater ground.

The third most significant apologetic challenge that we will face in the coming years is the ongoing accommodation of Christians to the culture. What I mean is that one of the biggest—perhaps the biggest—reason that people in our culture will find to reject Christianity in days ahead is the fact that most people who name the name of Christ have nothing significant to offer our culture by way of an alternative to what they already have. Christianity is losing its saltiness; it has become worldly. There are two specific ways in which this worldliness manifests itself.

Our lifestyles are not really different from those around us. Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig has said that “the ultimate apologetic is our lives.” That is, the most persuasive argument that you can give to an unbeliever as to why he ought to believe that Christianity is true, is a life radically transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. But, that only works if your life-style is noticeably different from that of unbelievers. But consider. . .

  • The divorce rate among Christians is almost the same as among the irreligious.
  • Christians give only about 3% of their income to charitable causes, including church.
  • We spend 7x more on entertainment than on spiritual activities.
  • We make most of our important decisions based on self-interest or utilitarian considerations (like unbelievers) rather than biblical principle—b/c most Xns don’t really know the Bible that well and so don’t have a biblical worldview.

Our lifestyles are not noticeably different from that of the world. Of course, we don’t take drugs or watch X-rated movies and the music we listen to has Christian lyrics. But, our lives—how we spend our time and our money, and the kinds of things we seem to care most about—are still mostly about ourselves, our desires, our comforts, our plans and purposes for the here and now.

We have also accommodated the world by our retreat from the objective truth and knowability of the Christian faith. For many years our culture has taught us that the only things that can be known, the only things that rise above the level of mere subjective opinion, are those things that are accessible to the empirical sciences. Through science we can have knowledge of nature and this-worldly matters. But, those things that lie outside the domain of science—religion and ethics—these can only be taken on faith. And Christians have bought into this philosophy and retreated from the intellectual defense of the Christian faith into pragmatism and experientialism. We offer Christianity to people not because we can show that it is true, but because it can offer them practical assistance with their daily lives and lead them into wonderful, warm, fuzzy religious experiences.

And now, in more recent days, some in what’s called the emergent church movement have even further accommodated culture by following it into the quagmire of postmodern relativism which does not simply deny that we can know the truth in religion and morality, but denies that there is any such thing as truth at all! Of course, this implies that Christian truth-claims, Christian doctrine like the deity of Christ and the sinfulness of man, are not objectively true, but are just the opinions of our particular sub-culture.

Such cultural accommodations threaten to make it impossible for Christianity to have any real and lasting relevance to the world in which we live. Why should people care about a religion that offers them only a different, cleaned-up version of the same kind of self-centeredness they already have? Why should they take seriously a faith that cannot be known to be true and which is simply one of many equally valid narratives they could adopt? And the reason why I say that this is an apologetics issue is because this kind of cultural accommodation makes apologetics impossible. It becomes impossible because, on the one hand, no one will take our apologetic arguments seriously when we don’t sem to care enough about what we believe to actually live it out; or, on the other hand, by denying that there is any Christian truth to defend, we deny any need for apologetics in the first place. I believe that this cultural accommodation is one of the major reasons why our youth are leaving the church and not coming back.

Well, these are the major apologetic challenges we face today in the 21st century. There are others, of course. We continue to face challenges from other world religions like Islam and Buddhism, as well as cultic groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. There cultural and ethical issues like same-sex marriage and cloning and stem cell research. In light of all of these issues and in light of the biblical mandate to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints, I believe that we have a calling to fulfill in out time. These things call us, first, to repent of our cultural accommodations by owning and living out the Christian values we say we believe and by standing steadfast on the conviction that Christianity is true—it’s really true—and that it can be known to be true. And then we are called to meet the other challenges head-on, first, with a robust defense of natural theology showing as rigorously and persuasively as we can that God actually exists and that his existence is something that can be known, not simply believed; and, second, with a thorough rebuttal of those who would undermine the authority of Scripture with groundless speculations about pagan myths and early church conspiracies. This, my brothers and sisters, is what we must do to give a defense in the 21st century.

[1] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Transforming Culture: Christian Truth Confronts Post-Christian America” internet article (2009) (http://www.albertmohler.com/article_read.php?cid=1) accessed January 27, 2009.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Freke and Gandy, The Laughing Jesus (NY: Harmony, 2005), 55.
[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (Oxford, 2003), 4.
[5] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), 284.
[6] Ibid., 308.
[7] Sam Harris, The End of Faith (NY: WW. Norton and Co., ??.), 11.
[8] Ibid.