A common approach in apologetic discussions is to ask someone what would convince them that Christianity is true. And if it is true, would you believe it? After all, we rely on truth every day of our lives. We want our banks, our employers, government, friends, and family to be truthful with us. And why would you want to believe something that is false? But the more I have thought about this question, I think it leads to some very important questions.
1. First of all, when you say the word ‘true’ or ‘truth’ you have to define what you mean! Whatever determines a test for truth determines one’s apologetic approach. It is quite common for the Christian or Christian apologist to defend the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, truth is what corresponds to reality. As Norman Geisler says:
“Truth is what corresponds to its referent. Truth about reality is what corresponds to the way things really are. Truth is “telling it like it is.” This correspondence applies to abstract realities as well as actual ones. There are mathematical truths. There are also truths about ideas. In each case there is a reality, and truth accurately expresses it. Falsehood, then is what does not correspond. It tells it like it is not, misrepresenting the way things are.”–Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, pgs,741-745.
Now here is the challenge: Many people aren’t asking whether Christianity corresponds to reality. Instead, they are asking if it is true because of the pragmatic benefits they see in people’s lives. This is a very popular approach. In this argument, many people say their religious beliefs have been tried and tested out in the reality of life. In other words, “Christianity works because it is true!”
This does have some merit. After all, if the Christian faith is the one true path, it should make a radical difference in the reality of life. The challenge of this argument is that in some cases, it seems Christianity doesn’t work. Christians have challenges in their families, work related issues and relationships. However, just because Christians don’t always reflect the character of Jesus and don’t always show the difference it makes, this doesn’t mean Christianity is false. It could be that the person is not under healthy teaching/discipleship or living in sin. So the pragmatic argument can be a tricky one. Everyone knows Christians have done some amazing things for the world (see here), but we also have some inconsistencies.
When we are challenging people on whether Christianity is true, sometimes the goal is to break them out of all other tests for truth (especially the pragmatic one) and get them to ask whether Christianity corresponds to reality? So our attempt to get people out of a post modern view of truth is quite challenging.
Proof and Evidence
Another challenge when talking about whether Christianity is the relationship between proof, evidence, knowledge, and certainty. Some people assume you can’t ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ God’s existence. Sadly, this can allow a person to punt to some form of lazy agnosticism. Thus, they are off the hook and and can ignore the God question. When this comes up, we need to know the difference between deductive, inductive or abductive proof. Unless someone has taken an into to logic course, in most cases, they don’t know any of these terms.’ You can see the chart here.
“The Christ” and First Century Context
If we are going to say “Christianity” is true, obviously it is about Jesus Christ. But what does that mean? “The comparable New Testament Greek word is Christos, from which we get the English word “Christ.” But this Greek word carries the same connotations as the Hebrew word — “the Anointed One” which is is where the word “messiah” comes from. “Messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests, prophets and kings. So are we saying Christianity is true because Jesus is the “Christ”? Thus, he is the Messiah that was discussed in the O.T.? Does this come up in your discussions? Also, guess what?
Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century wasn’t seen as a single “way.” There were many “Judaisms”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc. The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism. Even James Dunn says the following:
“Prior to Paul what we now call ‘Christianity’ was no more than a messianic sect within first-century Judaism, or better, within Second Temple Judaism — ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24.5), the followers of ‘the Way’ (that is, presumably, the way shown by Jesus)”- James Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels, pg 119.
Let’s look at how the apostles spread the Gospel in Acts.
1. The promises by God made in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament have now been revealed with the coming of Jesus the Messiah (Acts 2:30;3;19;24,10:43; 26:6-7;22).
2. Jesus was anointed by God at his baptism (Acts 10:38).
3. Jesus began his ministry at Galilee after his baptism (Acts 10:37).
4. Jesus conducted a beneficent ministry, doing good and performing mighty works by the power of God ( Acts 2:22; 10:38).
5. The Messiah was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23).
6. He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:23).
7. Jesus was exalted and given the name “Lord” (Acts 2:25-29;33-36;3:13;10:36).
8. He gave the Holy Spirit to form the new community of God (Acts 1:8;2;14-18;33,38-39;10:44-47).
9. He will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things (Acts 3:20-21;10:42; 17:31).
10. All who hear the message should repent and be baptized because of the finished work of Jesus (Acts 2:21;38;3:19;10:43, 17-48; 17:30, 26:20).
“As the secularizing and sexualizing revolutions whir on, it is no longer possible to pretend that we represent the “real America,” a majority of God-loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth cultural conservatives like us. Accordingly, we will engage the culture less like the chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the Book of Acts. We will be speaking not primarily to baptized pagans on someone’s church roll, but to those who are hearing something new, maybe for the first time. We will hardly be “normal,” but we should never have tried to be.”
For many of us, we say Jesus is the “Christ” ( the Messiah) because he rose from the dead. But there isn’t a lot about the Messiah rising from the dead in the Jewish Scriptures. Not to mention hardly any Jews today think the resurrection is a messianic qualification. I still think the resurrection is important. But just remember, you may have to get the person to see that this historical claim corresponds to reality.
Some Christians have followed the C.S. Lewis approach when he said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (see The Weight of Glory). To apply what Lewis says, we might utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. For example, when we look at these features of reality, which provides a more satisfactory explanation:
- How do you explain the Origin of the Universe?
- How do you explain the Mathematical Fine-Tuning of the Universe?
- How do you explain the Terrestrial Fine-Tuning of Planet Earth?
- How do you explain the Informational Fine-Tuning of the DNA molecule?
- How do you explain the Origin of Mathematical Laws?
- How do you explain the Origin of Logical Laws?
- How do you explain the Origin of Physical/Natural Laws?
- How do you explain the Origin of the First Cell?
- How do you explain the Origin of Human Reason?
- How do you explain the Origin of Human Consciousness?
- How do you explain the Origin of Objective Morality?
- How do you explain Ultimate Meaning in Life?
- How do you explain Ultimate Value in Life?
- How do you explain Ultimate Purpose in Life?
Using God as an explanatory explanation is seen in philosophical theology or natural theology arguments. The book The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology does a fine job in handling this issue. To see a short example of this approach online see, The Return of the God Hypothesis by Stephen C. Meyer or Paul Copan’s God: The Best Explanation
The challenge is that if we try to use natural theology arguments in showing Christianity is true, it doesn’t show us the character of God. In other words, these arguments only get people half the way to the “Christ.” Thus, we have to do historical apologetics.
Apologists have their work cut for them in showing what they mean when they say “Christianity is true” or “If Christianity is true, would you follow Jesus?” We need to remember that the definitions of terms is crucial to our cultural engagement.