Apologetics with Christian Speaker Alex McFarland

Alex's answers to common questions, part 3

(Continued from Page 2)

Question 11: Most people would agree that Judaism, Islam and Christianity pretty much teach the same things. As an evangelical, how do you respond to that?

I hear this alot.  Many today assume that Judaism, Christianity and Islam teach “basically the same things.”  It is true that these three religions share a somewhat similar theistic worldview (that God exists, created the world, and has revealed Himself).  However, the fact is that these three religions do not teach the same things.  Those who assert otherwise are simply not recognizing all the facts.

Boston University Professor Stephen R. Prothero documented this fact clearly in his recent book, God Is Not One. Prothero examined eight major world religions, and he points out that their core teachings are in fact very dissimilar. Regarding the faith systems that are often referenced as “the world’s three great monotheistic religions,” Judaism, Christianity and Islam all say different things about God, salvation, life’s purpose and the afterlife.

For instance, Islam and Judaism teach that salvation is based on works, while Christianity teaches that salvation comes from faith in Jesus alone.  One of the main dividing points between the three religions is that they disagree in their teachings about who Jesus was. Judaism does not recognize Jesus as the Messiah that God had promised His people. Islam teaches that Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more. Jesus, however, claimed to be “the way and the truth and the life” in John 14:6. After making that claim, Jesus added, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This is precisely what Christianity teaches: that no one can come to God except through Jesus Christ. This belief separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam because Christianity is the only religion that teaches that belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation.  All other religions fail to recognize Jesus’ claim to be the only path to God. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead proved that He is indeed God, and confirmed that what He taught is true: Jesus is the only way to God.
To quote a time-honored philosophical axiom, “Similarity does not equal sameness.”

Question 12: If Christians really cared about promoting peace and love, they wouldn’t be so intolerant. How would you as an evangelical believer answer this?

First, clarification should be sought regarding the assertion that Christians are so intolerant. The statement that Christians are intolerant is commonly made when a Christian individual or group simply objects to a truth claim that contradicts a Christian truth claim. Many today consider truth to be relative and label those who claim that truth is objective, and that contradictory truth claims are false, as intolerant. However, this is a misunderstanding of intolerance. To be intolerant requires more than denying the truth of an opposing truth claim. Intolerance also requires action of some sort. Disagreement alone is not intolerance.

Second, the assertion presupposes that peace and love are incompatible with intolerance. However, one can think of many examples where the promotion of peace and love is compatible with intolerance. Take the case of a misbehaving child, particularly a child whose behavior might cause harm to himself or a sibling.

The parent will not tolerate the misbehavior and will discipline the child. The discipline administered stems from love for the child and the desire to correct his behavior, thus bringing about greater peace and safety within the family. This example shows that the promotion of peace and love is not inherently incompatible with being intolerant.

While sharing and defending the truth of the gospel may at times be disagreeable, it is not intolerant and, unless sin in the believer’s life results in another motivation, it is done out of love for the unbeliever.

Question 13: Some Christians I know say that archaeology has proven the Bible. Is this true?

The short answer to this question is yes and no. First we must clarify what we mean by the word “prove.” If we use the term “prove” or “proof” as a mathematician or as a logician uses it then the answer would be no, archaeology has not proven the Bible. But, if we use the term “proof” as a historian would use it then the answer is yes, the science of archaeology has provided an amazing amount of evidence that supports the historical background and basis of the biblical text.

We must also be careful to state clearly what it is that archaeology can and cannot do. First of all, archaeology cannot “prove” faith. Faith in God is something that an individual must have in order to obtain salvation. Faith as such is subjective, yet faith also has an object that reason can explore, verify and clarify. Archaeology (as a tool of reason) can and does have a role in providing solid historical evidence that the Bible (as a historical document) conveys accurate information about the object of our faith.

Faith in Christ is essential to salvation. Archaeology cannot prove that faith, but it can help us to know that what is written of Him in Scripture is solidly grounded in historical reality.

Question 14: This Christian I know says that cursing is a sin. Why the big deal about profanity? After all, words are just words.

Christians who bristle when they hear profanity do so because they recognize that such language debases people. Profanity is dishonoring to the one who uses it and to the recipient(s) who hears it. Why should we handle words carefully and honorably? Because people are made in God’s image, are sinners for whom Christ lovingly died and (if Christians) are vessels in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. For these reasons, all humans have inherent worth, value and dignity. By honoring people in the way we address them, we are honoring the Creator whose image they bear.

The Bible is abundantly clear that the use of profane, base speech is inappropriate. Ephesians 4:29 instructs, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (NASB). James exhorts believers to refrain from profanity: “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh” (Jas. 3:9-12, NASB).

By way of analogy, James explains that just as it is uncharacteristic of springs to pour out both salt water and fresh water, it is uncharacteristic of true believers to praise God on one hand and curse our brothers on the other. So revealing is the tongue that James considers it a good indicator of the genuineness of one’s faith. “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (Jas. 1:26, NASB).

Jesus Christ said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45, NASB). Jesus explains that our speech reveals that which occupies our hearts and minds. Evil tongues (see 1 Pet. 3:10) and “mouths full of cursing” (Rom. 3:14) are evidence of a heart polluted by sin. On the other hand, a heart full of goodness “utters wisdom, and . . . speaks what is just” (Ps. 37:30).

Question 15: Alex, you talk a lot about “worldview.” Define that word, please.

A worldview is exactly what it sounds like; it is how someone sees the world. That sounds simple enough when the term is first heard, but it is much more complex when all that it includes is considered.

A person’s worldview entails a set of truth claims that are embraced to the extent that the worldview becomes reality. Because the worldview is reality, it drives what and how a person thinks, acts and feels. A worldview provides the foundation from which one discerns and makes all moral and ethical choices throughout an entire lifetime.  Therefore, a worldview choice is crucial, since it determines how a person deciphers right from wrong and from where his truth derives.

Question 16:  There is an apparent discrepancy between 1 Samuel 21 and Mark 2.  The Old Testament passage says that when David’s men entered the Tabernacle to find bread, Ahimelech was high priest.  In the Mark passage, Jesus seems to say that Abiathar the son of Ahimelech was high priest. Which is correct?

In Mark 2:26, Jesus says that David entered the house of God “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.” In referencing the events of 1 Samuel 21, Jesus does not say that Abiathar was then serving as high priest; His statement merely implies that Abiathar was alive at the time.

At the time of the Tabernacle incident involving David’s men, Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was indeed high priest. But he was soon executed by Saul (see 1 Sam. 22), and after this his son Abiathar became high priest.

Question 17: Some of the skeptic websites say that the New Testament records of Peter’s denial of Jesus are contradictory and cannot be reconciled. What do you say?

Let’s look at the verses in question. Matthew 26:34, Luke 22:34  and John 13:38 all say that Peter will deny Jesus “before the rooster crows.” Mark 14:30 records Jesus as saying, “Tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” In accurately understanding the whole of the Gospels, it is important to recognize that each book often includes details that are unique but not contradictory. Is it possible for multiple witnesses of an event to relate facts that are different yet complementary? Of course! As for the accounts of Peter denying Christ, none of the writers but Mark mentions how many times the rooster will crow. In Mark, extra detail is included. Mark’s detail would indicate that the rooster crowed once after Peter’s first denial and again after his third. It is likely that the second “crowing” recorded in Mark is the one referenced by the other Gospel writers.

C. S. Lewis’s book God in the Dock references the fact that many people attempt to keep God on the witness stand. Some see the Bible as guilty until proven innocent. For those willing to let the Bible vindicate itself under cross-examination, these examples show how helpful it can be simply to take a second look at the specific wording of verses in question.

As I’ve pointed out before, many of the self-proclaimed Internet infidels pride themselves on being ex-Christians or “recovering evangelicals.” Some of the more vitriolic say they’ve come from churches where questions and critical thinking were off-limits. This is sad, because one duty of the Christian is to worship God through continual nurture of the intellect (see Matt. 22:37; Rom. 12:2). As I have also alluded, hundreds of dialogues with skeptics have convinced me that intellectual skepticism is virtually always preceded by emotional pain.

Be prepared for some skeptics to deny this. Some will confidently maintain that they have rejected belief in God since childhood. Simple reasoning, they will assert, has guided them to the high ground of unbelief—not any life trauma. When interacting with one who maintains such a posture, I simply keep working to cultivate the friendship, and I continue to listen. Skepticism isn’t the natural conclusion of a mind made by God and for God. Skepticism is unnatural; it is learned.

Talk with a skeptic long enough and there will come the inevitable disclosure about the prayer not answered as expected, the Christian who was hurtful to him or her, or the pain associated with a negative church experience.  The arguments that skeptics marshal to support unbelief can be highly sophisticated. Students—especially those on college campuses—should know that there are solid answers for the tough questions. But they won’t find them in trendy books, YouTube rants or babbling blogs. It’s up to us to point them in the right direction.

Question 18: Assuming Jesus did exist, can we really know that much about Him?  So many people and groups make different claims about Him. Can there be a definitive “take” on Jesus?

Many skeptics want to know if there is historical evidence for Jesus other than that found in the New Testament. Actually, the New Testament records of Jesus should be allowed as corroborative evidence for Jesus. The New Testament accounts of Jesus Christ meet a number of key criteria by which scholars determine if something is historically trustworthy: The New Testament record comes to us from eyewitness sources and was written close to the time of events recorded.

Furthermore, the New Testament provides consistent content that harmonizes with other known facts about Jesus, and biblical accounts were universally affirmed by contemporaries who were “in the know.” Had the New Testament “gotten it wrong” about Jesus, there were eyewitnesses living at the time of the writings who could have “set the record straight.”

Not only did none of the Early Church leaders refute what the New Testament said about Jesus, but many of them also died for the message of Jesus. Quite literally, apostles (those who had seen the risen Christ) such as Peter and Paul, plus the next generation of Christian leaders (such as Polycarp and Chrysostom), laid down their lives for the veracity of what the New Testament recorded.  All of these realities taken together make a strong case for the Gospels’ trustworthiness as historical sources.

Rudolph Bultmann—a German scholar whose approach of “demythologizing” Jesus called on people in the twentieth century to focus more on faith than on historical facts—made the following observation: “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as the founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.” Translation: Jesus did exist, and what those first Christians reported about Him can be trusted as factual.

Even if we set the New Testament records of Jesus aside, an impressive amount of historical testimony about Him comes to us from the ancient world. This includes secular source material such as that from Tacitus, a first-century Roman historian. Tacitus records that Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. Suetonius—another Roman historian and chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian—recorded that one named Chrestus (or Christ) lived during the first century.  Julius Africanus (who lived in the second century) quotes Thallus (a Samaritan whose writings are from about 20 years after Christ’s death), who documented the darkness that followed the crucifixion.  Julius Africanus was a famous orator who appears to have assumed as factual what Thallus had said about Jesus.

Other secular sources that reference Jesus, and whose testimony corroborates what the New Testament says about Him, include Pliny the Younger (Roman lawyer and political figure born about AD 61), Lucian of Samosata (a Greek humorist born about AD 125 and known for his sarcasm), and Mara Bar-Serapion (a Syrian writer, living near the end of the first century).

Another later (though important) source is the Babylonian Talmud (Jewish writings compiled during the third century). Contained therein is a reference to Jesus, who gave Israel new teachings and was executed at Passover for this. The bottom line is that from sources other than the New Testament (and note that these are non-Christian sources), we may conclude many of the same things that the Gospels tell us about Jesus. Historians accept as genuine other persons and events with much less supporting evidence, so we can reasonably accept that what we know of Jesus Christ is historically reliable. It is highly significant that during the first 300 years of Christianity (a time of intense persecution), thousands of followers were so convinced of the reality of Jesus that they were willing to die for Him.

As for getting the definitive “take” on Jesus, the best approach is to accept what He taught about Himself: that He is the Son of God who came to die for the sins of the world. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, ESV). Jesus claimed that He and God the Father are one (John 10:30), and that to encounter Him was the same as seeing God the Father (see John 14:9).

There seems to be no limit to the number of books that are produced in attempts to re-define Jesus. Interestingly, new books released year after year, ostensibly presenting the “real scoop” on Jesus, always seem to reflect the times in which they are written. In the 1970s and 1980s, books came out depicting an easygoing, anti-establishment Jesus very reminiscent of the hippie movement. From the 1980s through the present time, there have been books that paint Jesus’ main message as social consciousness, environmental consciousness, undefined “spirituality” or political liberation of some sort. Some paint Jesus as one who would
champion the gay rights agenda.

All the while, Jesus’ words as recorded in the Bible still call out: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3); “If you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).

C. S. Lewis commented on those who attempt to re-invent Jesus, rather than simply accept the record of Scripture and of history: “There have been too many historical Jesuses—a liberal Jesus, a pneumatic Jesus, a Barthian Jesus, a Marxist Jesus. They are the cheap crop of each publisher’s list, like the new Napoleons and new Queen Victorias. It is not to such phantoms that I look for my faith and my salvation.”

Question 19: Why are Christians so resistant to science, specifically evolution? Isn’t it possible that the Bible alludes to evolution as being the tool God used in creating the world?

Genesis 2:7 says, “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Many have wondered, “Could not evolution have been the process God used to accomplish these things?”

Scholars on both sides of the creation-evolution debate have noted that the two views of origins are fundamentally incompatible.  An attempted merger of the two positions compromises both. From the standpoint of exegesis (identifying the meaning of a text), the biblical accounts of creation in no way imply evolution. The quest to mesh evolutionary thought and the biblical record of creation requires eisegesis (imposing an interpretation onto the text). Many professed
Christians do accept the theory of evolution, but I do not think that Scripture can justifiably be used to support the position.

This discussion must take into account the reality that evolution and revelation have vastly different things to say about the subject of origins. As defenders of evolution have long pointed out, a naturalistic model of understanding the universe is inherently nontheistic (that is, no Creator is present nor necessary).

Shortly after the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee (which brought the conflict between creation and evolution to a national focus), the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism at the time wrote, “Evolution is atheism.”

In his book River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins famously summarized the evolutionist’s assumptions about the forces at work in this world: “At bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Statements like this illustrate the impassable gulf that separates the two belief systems. Those on both sides of the issue have noted that “theistic evolution” (belief that God used evolution as His tool for creation) is tough to defend. Each position includes core assumptions that conflict with the other side’s. If the core beliefs of each side are upheld consistently, the believer in evolution and the believer in creation will inevitably reach an impasse.

The incompatibility of the two models is illustrated in the asking of only three basic questions. These are the questions of origin, purpose and destiny. People throughout history have pondered core questions like these: 

“Where did everything—including me—come from?”
“Why am I here? What is life’s meaning?”
“Where is the world headed? What happens after death?”

In response to such pervasive, “big questions,” a non-theistic worldview provides answers that are inherently naturalistic. A theistic worldview gives responses that are inherently supernatural. Again, if the core assumptions of the worldviews are handled consistently, any attempted “meshing” of the two carries with it potential for conflict.

The challenging issues in such a discussion yield problematic answers. Think about the Judeo-Christian view of what it means to be human. A synthesis of evolution and creation must answer how man came to be the image-bearer of God. Did this come about naturally or supernaturally? If the image of God in man came about miraculously, why not accept that God miraculously brought about physical life in forming man from the dust of the earth? If God could be solely responsible for the spiritual part of man’s nature, why not attribute to Him the physical?

What about the origin of Adam’s wife, Eve? The Bible says that God put Adam in a state of deep sleep, took from his side a rib, and from this made the first woman (see Gen. 2). I think that two things are worth noting: first that the apostle Paul referred to Eve as a literal, historical person (see 1 Tim. 2:13); and further, that discoveries within a number of scientific disciplines (genetics, biochemistry and geology, to name a few) indicate that the human race originated from a single male-female pair.

Chemist Fazale Rana, Ph.D., and astrophysicist Hugh Ross, Ph.D., discuss this at length in their book Who Was Adam?  Rana and Ross state: “Genetic studies of human population groups signify that humanity had a recent origin in a single geographical location from a small population, with genetic links back to a single man and single woman . . . In fact, the first genetic ancestors of humanity are referred to in the scientific community as Y-chromosomal Adam and mitochondrial Eve.”

Evolutionists contend that the sexes evolved, simultaneously, in the same geographical region, with one being male and one being female. Rana and Ross document that, “The research also demonstrates that humanity and human civilization arose relatively recently near (or in) the Middle East to fill the earth.” This harmonizes well with what the Bible indicates about human origins.

Yet theistic evolution begins with the presupposition that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are non-literal. The Bible states that Adam was the first man—a fact affirmed by no lesser authorities than Moses (author of Genesis), Paul (see 1 Cor. 15:45), and even Jesus Christ (see Matt. 19:4).

Evolutionary science asserts that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that human beings first appeared some 2.5 million years ago. Regardless of the position one takes on the age of the universe, these dates would appear difficult to reconcile with the Bible’s assertion that created life—including human beings—arose here, “in the beginning” (see Gen. 1:1-27).

Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould was a frequent commentator on the friction between naturalistic evolution and theism. Before his death in 2002, Gould commented on two of the key assumptions of evolution: uniformitarianism and gradualism. Uniformitarianism is the assumption that observed natural processes on earth have always been present and operated as we see them today. Gradualism is the belief that earth’s diversity of life forms is the result of numerous, incremental genetic changes. Gould, even though he was a dedicated defender of evolution, recognized that these pillars of evolutionary thought were never proven empirically.  Carefully read this admission by Gould:

“Gradualism was never ‘proved from the rocks’ by Lyell and Darwin, but was rather imposed as a bias upon nature.” Gould says that this “has had a profoundly negative impact by stifling hypotheses and by closing the minds of a profession toward reasonable empirical alternatives to the dogma of gradualism. Lyell won with rhetoric what he could not carry with data.”

To return to the original question, Christianity has actually been a great friend to science. Some individual Christians may appear to you to have been anti-science (and perhaps they have been).  But many Christians throughout history have been scientists, and many are today. The rub comes down to this: The biblical model of origins (by a supernatural Creator) and the naturalistic model of evolution (occurring unguided processes) are positions resting on mutually exclusive claims. Unless the basic premises of both positions are compromised, the claims of creation and evolution are incompatible.

Question 20: Is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity illogical?
The Trinity is one of the most misunderstood of all Christian doctrines.  Some skeptics assert that the concept of the Trinity is illogical, while those of other religions sometimes assume that Christians worship multiple gods.

Admittedly, the Trinity is a difficult subject to try to comprehend. Pious writers, both ancient and modern, have done their best to set forth the biblical truth that there is one God, yet manifested in three Persons. Perhaps you have been in a worship service that made reference to the Apostle’s Creed or the Athanasian Creed. These ancient statements of Christian belief make reference to the Trinity, ascribing equal position to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Athanasian Creed is especially specific in its handling of the Trinity, stating, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance (or essence).”

In examining the doctrine of the Trinity, it is important to point out what it does not mean: The Trinity is not the same as tritheism (three gods), polytheism (many gods, perhaps innumerable), or pantheism (all is god). “Trinity,” as meant by historic Christian orthodoxy, asserts that there is One God, yet three Persons within that single nature. It should be no surprise that an infinite God extends beyond our finite reasoning capabilities.

Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) taught that while the mysteries of the Christian faith (such as the Trinity and Christ’s incarnation) cannot be known by human reason alone, they can be justifiably accepted by faith in God’s revelation through Scripture. Nature can tell us that God exists, but Scripture tells us what kind of God exists. In other words, the Trinity goes beyond reason but is not unreasonable. A full understanding of the Trinity from our human vantage point is impossible. It is beyond the scope of our reasoning abilities. But this in no way implies that what the Bible presents about the triune nature of God necessitates a contradiction.

The Bible says that the Father is fully God, but it does not say that He is the only Person who is fully God. Likewise, the Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God, but He is not the only Person who is fully God. The Holy Spirit is also fully God, but so is the Father and so is the Son. Christians cannot prove that God is a Trinity. We can only believe it, and rightly so, because God has revealed it to us. The Trinity is a mystery that those in heaven will one day understand a bit more fully.

Some who deny the concept of the Trinity assert that the doctrine is too complex. In answer to charges like this, consider the insightful quote from C. S. Lewis’s 1943 work Mere Christianity: “If Christianity were something that we were making up, of course we would make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with those people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course, anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

Thus, we can say that while the existence of the Trinity is beyond reason, the Bible teaches it, Jesus revealed it, and the Christian Church has confessed it. I often say to audiences, “We have to trust that God knows who He is.” The Trinity is complicated, but not contradictory or illogical. As theologian A. H. Strong wrote of the presence of this great triune Lord: “God, in the totality of His essence, without multiplication or division, penetrates and fills the universe in all its parts.” 

I believe that the place that the triune God most wants to fill is the heart of every person—questioners, doubters, and hardened skeptics included!



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