It's been a while since we had a post on Christian evidences.
I've recently been led to reflect on the fact that there remains a Christian subculture that is somewhat uneasy with Christian evidences. Here I'm not referring to modernists or even postmodernists. I'm not referring to the unorthodox who don't like evidence because they like to keep Christianity hazy so that they don't really have to believe anything. I'm thinking of the fervent and utterly sincere, orthodox, Bible-believing Christians who nonetheless feel a bit...worried, somehow, if their young people start asking questions about the evidences for Christianity. Worried even if the young people are studying and reading and getting answers. Why might that be?
The reasons why that occurs (and if you aren't familiar with the phenomenon, just take my word for it that it does occur) are varied, and some are better than others.
Here are a few:
1) The idea that faith is contrary to reason and that therefore it is bad for one's faith if one has good reasons for believing Christianity. This premise is just plain wrong. It's been discussed and addressed in many books by many people. Here, here, and here are just a few of my own posts on the subject. (More posts tagged explicitly with the label "evidentialism" are also found here and here.)
2) The rather vaguer idea that one will be distracted from a "real relationship with Jesus Christ" if one is focusing on intellectual matters such as evidence. Now, the Devil is real, and he can, of course, use any good thing for a bad end. C.S. Lewis once wrote that he never felt less convinced of a Christian doctrine than when he had just finished defending it. (Words to that effect.) It is no doubt true that, for certain personality types, the intensity of one's feeling of commitment to God will be lessened if one is thinking of God more prosaically--whether in terms of systematic theology, natural theology, or historical evidence.
But then again, heaven knows that there are plenty of "dry" passages in the Bible, too. And no, I don't just mean the genealogies. I mean, for example, all that heavy doctrine in the Pauline epistles. I imagine that most of the same people who would get nervous if their college-age kids were reading, say, Butler on natural theology and Christian evidences don't mind at all if their pastor preaches exegetically through every verse of Ephesians. Unless, I suppose, they are Pentecostals who don't like exegetical preaching either. (With apologies to my Pentecostal brethren.)
My point here is that God Himself doesn't seem to be too worried about our thinking about Him in a sober and unemotional fashion. Apparently He thinks that our having a good grounding and understanding of meatier matters is worth the danger that some of us might find intellectual thought a bit dampening to our emotions. Emotions, even the emotional part of our love for Jesus Christ, come and go. Facts and theology, once understood and grasped, remain and can tide one over dry periods. And emotionally dry periods in one's spiritual life will come, from one cause or another, even if one is as uneducated as a rock when it comes to either theology or Christian evidence.
3) The concern that their young people might read some really pernicious material that will lead them astray, perhaps in the attempt to read the opposition in order to answer it. Now, I think this worry has something to it. That can indeed happen. No wise Christian mentor will just hand a 17-year-old a copy of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and say, "Go for it, kid. Heh. Let me know if you can answer him."
So what does that mean? It means that, if one is going to read atheist apologists, one should read them with guidance from people who really do know how to answer them.
Nor should one think of teaching young people Christian evidences as being primarily about reading "the other guys." The highest priority should be showing how much good evidence there is for Christianity. There is a wealth of material available. See this post for a tiny sample. More material in the posts tagged here and here (these tags were mentioned above). See also this page at Apologetics315.
4) The idea that, if a young person gets deeply interested in Christian evidence, he will go out on the Internet (or at his public high school or secular college) seeking giants to slay and will get overwhelmed. Again, this worry has merit as a sociological matter. That can certainly happen.
That is why we should say loud and clear to Christians interested in this topic: Don't do that! What do I mean? Just this: Being committed to investigating the evidence for Christianity does not mean that one has to find out every possible thing that anyone has ever said about or against Christianity and know the answer to it. That would be impossible because of the sheer bulk of (ultimately unpersuasive) objections which skeptics can bring up as though they were real problems.
In this context the words of George Horne, an 18th century bishop, from his Letters on Infidelity, are wise and helpful. (Emphasis added.)
In the thirty sections of their pamphlet, they have produced a list of difficulties to be met with in reading the Old and New Testament. Had I been aware of their design, I could have enriched the collection with many more, at least as good, if not a little better. But they have compiled, I dare say, what they deemed the best, and, in their own opinion, presented us with the essence of infidelity in a thumb-phial, the very fumes of which, on drawing the cork, are to strike the bench of bishops dead at once. Let not the unlearned Christian be alarmed, “as though some strange thing had happened to him,” and modern philosophy had discovered arguments to demolish religion, never heard of before. The old ornaments of deism have been “broken off” upon this occasion, “and cast into the fire, and there came out this calf.” These same difficulties have been again and again urged and discussed in public; again and again weighed and considered by learned and sensible men, of the laity as well as the clergy, who have by no means been induced by them to renounce their faith.
Many and painful are the researches sometimes necessary to be made, for settling points of that kind. Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject.
Think about the approach you take to other issues. There is a theory that men never walked on the moon and that the moon landing was a hoax. Do you investigate every detail of the argument given on the "hoax" side of that issue? What about Holocaust denial? (No, I'm not inviting a discussion in the combox of Holocaust or moon landing denial.)
The Internet is in some ways antithetical to the well-balanced operation of man's mind. The man with a well-balanced mind gets firmly in place the bulk of the evidence on some subject and then realizes that everything does not hinge on whether he can, right now, answer this or that objection which he happens not to have heard before.
So if I tell you that Christianity is faith founded on fact and that you should find out those facts and ground your faith in them, I am not suggesting that you trawl Internet Infidel sites to test your evidentialist biceps by trying to answer every objection that atheist "pertness and ignorance" have raised, often have raised repeatedly over the centuries. Far from it.
(Digression: Has anyone else noticed that people seem to have forgotten the word "trawl"? They think it is "troll" and will use "troll" where it should be "trawl." The word "trawl" is taken from fishing and, used metaphorically in a reading context, is a rough synonym for "browse." End of digression.)
5) The unspoken fear that Christianity cannot stand up to scrutiny and doesn't really have good evidential support.
Here I do not blame the parents, but not because I share the unspoken fear. I do not blame them, because in most cases no one has ever taught them otherwise. How many pastors and priests have really taught apologetics to their congregations, or even offered such studies as an option? Too few. How many courses on sharing your faith have explicitly taught people not to get involved in responding to questions and objections but just to "share their experience" because "no one can argue with that"? Too many. It's no wonder then that the congregation comes away with the sneaking suspicion that our Christian faith is no better grounded than Mormonism and that we, like they, must depend chiefly on the burning in the bosom.
And one can always push the blame further back. Perhaps the pastors weren't taught Christian evidences at their seminaries.
In fact, I would not be surprised if all too many theologians who give high-falutin' rationalizations for being anti-evidentialist are actually making a virtue out of what they deem to be a necessity. Since they don't think Christian faith is founded on fact, they might as well make up some profound-sounding theological theory that tells us that it shouldn't be.
When Nathanael asks Philip, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Philip simply says, "Come and see." (John 1:46) And he brings him to Jesus. If you as a parent or mentor to the young are opposed to the study of Christian evidences partly because deep down you suspect that they aren't very good, I can only say to you as well, "Come and see."