Transitions and Steadfastness – Part IV

As a final entry in our list of scenarios for transitioning (or not) between Christianity and atheism, we’ll take a look at the idea of atheists becoming Christians. This type of thing always brings joy to the church community for many reasons. One, perhaps somewhat “worldly,” reason is that it helps us to validate what we already believe to be true. Somehow, it seldom works the other way around, though.

There are, as is usually the case, many reasons that an atheist might become a Christian. Typically, however, all these cases will have at least one thing in common. That is, the willingness to at least accept the possiblity that God could, in fact, exist. If one pre-supposes that God simply cannot exist, I don’t believe there is any amount of evidence that will convince such a person otherwise because any evidence of God’s existence is discarded from their analysis.

In effect, it would almost be more accurate to say that these people were “agnostic” rather than “atheist.” Though, often we will hear people use the term “atheist” to descibe this group. In fact, they often will describe themselves as atheists. But, the first step to Chrisianity is having an open mind to at least the possibility of God’s existence.

For these people, perhaps they begin to be asked questions about where they stand on this. Or maybe a Christian friend or family member starts a dialog about their “faith.” Perhaps they are simply curious and wish to honestly examine what evidence there is in hopes that they have come to the correct conclusion. The caveat here is “honestly examine.” If they are simply looking for evidence that justifies their conclusions, they will discount any evidence that goes against these conclusions.

Whatever the case, the atheist begins his/her examination. Perhaps they read the Bible. Perhaps they begin to study the historicity of Christianity. Maybe they look at philosophical issues such as the origin of the universe or of life. Let’s take a brief look at a couple of these various things.

In the case of the atheist reading the Bible as research, I think this often goes hand-in-hand with looking at the historicity of Christianity and looking into how reliable are the biblical writings. After all, if one simply supposes that the Bible is true, there is little room for anything other than acceptance of Christianity. The question, then, is how do we know that the Bible is true? And how do we know that it has been accurately handed down to us through the centuries?

First of all, based on historical evidence, we know that the earliest writings that became part of our Bible were written around the years 40-50 A.D. This means, in the worst case, these writings were within about 17 years of Christ’s crucifixion. Scholars generally agree that it takes several generations for what they call “legendary development” (the idea that a story is exagerrated to the point of legendary status) to occur. In the case of Paul’s letters, 17 years is far too short a period of time for this type of thing to have occurred.

Secondly, these documents were written during a time when many of the people involved in these events were still alive and could have easily refuted the claims. Yet, the disciples did not, in fact, refute these claims.

Now, some may say, “Of course they didn’t! It was their story!” But that goes against a great deal of other evidence which suggests that these disciples truly believed what they preached was true. Historical scholars seem to be in agreement that the disciples all reported having seen Jesus raised from the dead and they all seem to agree that they died for this very belief.

It is highly unlikely, for one thing, that a large group of people would all willingly give their lives for a message if they did not believe that message to be true. It is also extrememely unlikely, if one looks at the historical and social context of these people, that they should so drastically and suddenly change their entire view of God and theology without a very strong reason to do so. We must remember that what Christ did flew directly in the face of a great deal of the teachings handed down by the Jews for hundreds of years.

Archaeologically, no actual discovery has ever been made to disprove anything in the Bible. Skeptical scholars in this area lean solely on the fact that certain things have “not been discovered” in order to refute biblical accounts. What we typically find in this area is, evidence just hasn’t been discovered yet. Any time discoveries are made, however, it just shows that what the Bible said was true all along. One example is the recent (relatively) discovery of a series of catacombs beneath Jerusalem which was reported by Samuel and used by David to sneak into the city.

Philosophers look at things like the Kalam Cosmological argument which states that 1) everything that begins to exist must have a cause and 2) the universe began to exist. Therefore, the only valid conclusion is that the universe had to have a cause. When coupled with other things such as the precise fine-tuning of the universe (the “Teleological Argument”) and the existence of objective moral values, it begins to build a case for an intelligent designer.

Based on these things, acclaimed atheist philosopher Anthony Flew came to the conclusion a few years ago that the universe was, in fact, designed by an intelligent designer and is now a theist. While he does not accept Christianity, it is still a major change in world-view to go from being an atheist to accepting the existence of a divine being who created the universe. From there, Christianity is only a small step away.

Most of the time, if we are to summarize these concepts, when an atheist begins to truly and honestly examine the claims of Christianity, it becomes quite clear that no other explanation offered by science, history, archaeology or philosophy has the same explanatory power or has as much explanatory scope as the acceptance of God as a real being.

This is not to say that, as a Christian, we are to just attribute everything to God and not bother with scientific exploration, writing off everything as a “miracle.” Christians need not be afraid of scientific discovery. Science is the study of the natural universe. We believe God created the universe and all of nature. Why not continue to gain a better understanding of His creation? None of these discoveries should threaten our faith at all.

So, let’s not check our brains at the door. Let’s allow discoveries to be made and follow the facts to the natural conclusion to which they would lead us. Even if they might be difficult to hear. But let’s also be careful not to assume that these discoveries somehow disprove the existence of God, as many people believed with the Big Bang Theory was developed. No scientific discovery that has ever been proven true has ever implicated God as non-existent.

Study the facts, follow the truth and let that lead you to an honest conclusion.

Grace, love and peace.

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2 Comments

  1. Prof. Faust,

    Thanks for your comments. A couple of them I’d like to address directly:

    “All it took was one Wikipedia search on the Gospels to find that those dates are not necessarily accurate, and any skeptical non-believer would use the dates 65-110 CE.”

    This is the commonly accepted time frame for the gospel writings, but Paul’s letters to the various churches have been estimated at the dates mentioned earlier. These were actually the first writings of the early church, though it is understandable that people often assume the gospels were written first as they detail earlier events such as the life of Christ.

    “Whether witnesses believed they saw something is irrelevant because there is no way to know they weren’t hallucinating, or, alternatively, sent visions from Satan. Witnesses aren’t going to convince a skeptic.”

    The hallucination theory has been pretty thoroughly debunked due to the number of people claiming to have experienced post-resurrection appearances. Had it been only one or two people, this argument may be somewhat plausible. But given the number of people who reported having seen the risen Christ, scholars have almost universally abandoned this theory as having no real explanatory power or scope as it requires one to believe that large numbers of people would simultaneously experience the same hallucination. Most scholarship has dismissed this theory as completely ridiculous.

    As for visions from Satan, only an unbeliever would be subject to this type of thing according to biblical writings.

    And, finally, witnesses were not trying to “convince” anyone. If you notice in Acts, the disciples would preach the gospel and those who accepted it accepted it and those who didn’t didn’t. They were not pursued or argued with. They simply were told the good news and allowed to make their decision to follow or not.

    In the same way, if someone today does not wish to follow Christ, that’s their decision. I only want to help do what I can to ensure people can base their decisions on the most accurate information possible so that they can make an informed decision.

    “Until evidence is found of something there is no reason to presume that it exists”

    I’m amused at the “tea pot” analogy. The difference here, however, is that there IS evidence for these things. My point is that Skeptics attempt to discredit the Bible by stating that a city or structure did not exist simply because they have not (yet) found it. Then, what we often see happen is, the city or structure or whatever ends up being discovered and we find that the biblical account was actually accurate.

    “The Cosmological Argument pleads for God to be exempted from cause”

    This is true. Because, as the premise of the argument states, “whatever BEGINS to exist must have a cause.” If God is eternal, as the bible teaches, then He has no beginning and therefore would exist necessarily. In other words, the universe is “contingent” in that it COULD not exist. God, however, cannot not exist. Granted, to someone who doesn’t believe in God, that can be a tough pill to swallow.

    “The Teleological Argument does not describe God, only some kind of consciousness, perhaps even an alien. ”

    The argument is not meant to describe God. Only to show the un-imaginable precision of fine-tuning of the universe which helps to support the idea (not necessarily prove it) that there was an intelligent being who designed and created the universe.

    If we look to aliens, that doesn’t work because they would be a part of the universe and therefore could not have been causally involved in it’s creation.

    “The Ontological Argument does not back its premises with evidence. ”

    This may be true. I have very little actual knowledge of this argument, therefore, I wanted to little more here than bring up the fact that it has been posed, but I am not in a position to go into detail about it as I don’t honestly understand it very well.

    “If these arguments were very convincing, skeptics would convert en masse.”

    This is not necessarily true, which was the main thrust of the article. Only those who actually were honestly seeking truth and allowing for the possibility of God could actually come to this conclusion. If one dismisses anything that points to evidence of God, no amount of truth will be convincing because the truth that leads to that conclusion is dismissed and therefore not part of the body of evidence being evaluated. That’s pretty much my whole point, here.

    “Christians must face a great deal of work if they want to make converts out of their skeptics. ”

    I can’t speak for other Christians, but I’m not trying to make skeptics into believers. I’m just trying to ensure that the truth is made known and arguments that are fallacious, but that could hinder someone from knowing the truth (like the “hallucination theory”) are shown for what they are so that they don’t falsely allow people to come to conclusions that they wouldn’t with the right evidence.

    “They need to go out and find evidence for their claims because they haven’t yet done so.”

    Given creation itself, the burden of proof (particularly on an overtly Christian blog) is on the skeptic. After all, I’m not trying to convince anyone that God exists. I’m just trying to help prepare people for others who try to convince them that He doesn’t.

    And I, myself, am subject to that as well. So, if a skeptic wants to convince me that God doesn’t exist, knock yourself out. I welcome the challenge. Though, thus far, arguments to the contrary have done little more that make me more convinced that God IS real and that the biblical accounts are accurate and trustworthy.

    God bless you and I hope you continue to search for truth with honesty and openness. Even if it leads you to a conclusion different than mine.

  2. ‘In effect, it would almost be more accurate to say that these people were “agnostic” rather than “atheist.”’

    Atheism –noun
    1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
    2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    Agnosticism –noun
    1. the doctrine or belief of an agnostic.
    2. an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge. -Dictonary.com

    Notice that the term “agnostic” refers to only knowledge, while “atheism” refers specifically to belief in a god. When it comes to theism vs. atheism there is no middle ground. One is either a theist or atheist, but either can be agnostic, because agnostic only refers to knowledge.

    Most people who identify as agnostics are actually agnostic atheists, and most theists are agnostic theists, because many in both camps don’t claim to know with absolute certainty.

    “First of all, based on historical evidence, we know that the earliest writings that became part of our Bible were written around the years 40-50 A.D.”

    All it took was one Wikipedia search on the Gospels to find that those dates are not necessarily accurate, and any skeptical non-believer would use the dates 65-110 CE.

    ‘It is highly unlikely, for one thing, that a large group of people would all willingly give their lives for a message if they did not believe that message to be true.’

    Whether witnesses believed they saw something is irrelevant because there is no way to know they weren’t hallucinating, or, alternatively, sent visions from Satan. Witnesses aren’t going to convince a skeptic.

    ‘Skeptical scholars in this area lean solely on the fact that certain things have “not been discovered” in order to refute biblical accounts.’

    Until evidence is found of something there is no reason to presume that it exists. If you were told there was was a celestial teapot floating in the asteroid belt you would rightly say that that is crazy. If you were then told that it couldn’t be seen by observatories because it is too small, you would still think it was insane to believe such. Your archeological “teapot” has not been found, and until it is, there is no reason to believe.

    ‘Philosophers look at things like the Kalam Cosmological argument which states that 1) everything that begins to exist must have a cause and 2) the universe began to exist. Therefore, the only valid conclusion is that the universe had to have a cause. When coupled with other things such as the precise fine-tuning of the universe (the “Teleological Argument”) and the existence of objective moral values, it begins to build a case for an intelligent designer.’

    The Cosmological Argument pleads for God to be exempted from cause. The Teleological Argument does not describe God, only some kind of consciousness, perhaps even an alien. The Ontological Argument does not back its premises with evidence. If these arguments were very convincing, skeptics would convert en masse.

    Christians must face a great deal of work if they want to make converts out of their skeptics. They need to go out and find evidence for their claims because they haven’t yet done so.

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