FOES OF THE FAITH often declare Christianity morally deficient. Christopher Hitchens for one has said that religion "poisons everything," and believers are all too familiar with attempts to hang the Crusades, the Inquisition, and even the Holocaust around their necks. They have also felt the sting of being labeled "repressed, Victorian prudes," "blood-thirsty colonialists," purveyors of an ideological "opium to the masses," and insufferable "theocrats." The Bible itself has been demeaned for teaching willfully blind creationism, genocide in Canaan, homophobia, and an eternal hell.
This book is designed to push back against such criticism, arguing that Christianity is morally superior as well as true. I will engage not only the harsh critic but also the more subtly aggressive cultural relativist, with his fondness for "moral equivalency."
The book is not meant as a knockdown proof of Christianity. Indeed, no apologetic can accomplish this, and few today believe that one can. Rather, typical contemporary apologists fashion "defeater defeaters" to deflate the skeptic's claims of victory and, second, argue the greater plausibility of Christianity among its explanatory rivals. I'll try some of both.
I will note uncomfortable realities, including the misbehavior of many Christians (and false professors) but will seek to demonstrate that the moral and cultural center of mass of genuine Christianity is clearly superior to that of its competitors.
In a recent book, marginal television personality Adam Carolla goes through some of his atheist moves:
Every time you argue with a religious person, they pose this question: "If you were walking down a dark alley, would you rather encounter a group of Christians or a group of atheists?" Before I answer that, let me ask you a question, my religious-zealot friend. What percentage of inmates on death row are atheist or agnostic? Of course I'd rather deal with people who had their own internal moral compass rather than a group that could stab me and be absolved of their sins. And where is this alley, and what year is it? Not if the alley is in Jerusalem during the Crusades.
Into this little piece of rim-shot comedy, Carolla has packed a fair amount of insulting nonsense, yet it passes for wisdom in the popular culture. He would likely get away with it, with applause and laughter, on talk shows. But look at what he's saying or strongly implying: that apologetics and evangelism are stupid zealotry; that most people on death row were genuinely religious at the time of their crimes; that atheists, like himself, have a reliable, internal moral compass; that functional atheists (as distinct from convictional atheists like himself) don't count in the calculations; that New Testament grace and Muslim jihad come to the same thing, a license to murder; that "Christian" brutality during the Crusades was unambiguous and typical.
But again, Carolla is a comedian, not accountable to the canons of academic circumspection. But fairness on these matters is hardly the rule on campus. Take, for instance, a speech recently appearing in the liberal Jewish magazine, Tikkun. While receiving an honorary doctorate from Augustana Hochschule, a Protestant seminary in Germany, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel quoted "Nazi Christian" Wolf Meyer-Erlach to say, "In the treatment and decision of National Socialism against Jews, Luther's intentions, after centuries, are being fulfilled." Using this quote as Exhibit A, she goes on to argue that the Holocaust was an outworking of dominant Christian theology, rooted not only in the writings of this sixteenth-century Reformer but also in the work of Justin Martyr and even in the doctrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
She makes one reference to the Confessing Church but gives no indication it opposed Hitler perilously, and her wording is helplessly misleading:
Even within the so-called "church struggle" between German Christians and the Confessing Church for control of the Protestant church, anti-Semitism became the glue that united the otherwise warring factions. Similarly, however much Hitler made use of images of messianism, redemption, and other Christian motifs, the most useful and consistent aspect of Christianity for the Nazi movement was its anti-Judaism, just as the single most consistent and persistent feature of Nazism was its anti-Semitism.
You can easily get the false sense that "the glue that united" the Confessing Church, internally and externally, was hatred of the Jews. And there is no mention whatsoever of the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, for instance, defied Nazi sensibilities by writing a book emphasizing Christ's loving use of the Hebrew Psalms.
But believers have grown accustomed to such verbal sins of commission and omission by those who wish to defame the church.
So what is one to do when the critics claim that Christianity has a baleful effect on society? Surprisingly, some first-rate apologists are wary of answering back, of arguing that Christian cultural influence is both defensible and superior.
Take, for instance, this exchange between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens. It came near the end of a debate held at Biola University in 2009, one moderated by conservative radio personality Hugh Hewitt. Craig had adopted a formal debater's template, foisting the burden of disproving theism upon Hitchens and then declaring Hitchens' answers inadequate. When the atheist tried to shift the discussion to moral and cultural matters and Hewitt picked up the question, Craig dismissed the matter:
HEWITT: Those who are announced atheists, those who have done evil in the world, particularly in the last... century, the Marxists, the Trotskyites, the Stalinists, have they done more damage in your view and more evil than the Christians?
CRAIG: Well, this is a debate, Hugh, that I don't want to get into because I think it's irrelevant. I, as a philosopher, and I mean this, am interested in the truth of these worldviews more than I'm interested in the social impact. And you cannot judge the truth of a worldview by its social impact. That's just irrelevant. Bertrand Russell in his essay, "Why I am not a Christian," understood this. Russell said that you cannot assess the truth of a worldview by seeing whether it's good for society or not. Now the irony was that when Russell wrote that back in the twenties, he was trying to refute those who said you should believe in Christianity because it's so socially beneficial to society. It was just the mirror image of Christopher Hitchens' argument, saying you shouldn't believe in it because it's socially detrimental to human culture. But I think Russell's point cuts both ways because it's a valid point. You can't assess the truth of a worldview by argument about its cultural and social impact. There are true ideas that may have had negative social impact. And, therefore, we have to deal with the truth of these, the arguments for and against them, and not get into arguments about, "Has Marxism or Chinese Communism been responsible for more deaths than theism in the 20th century."
HITCHENS: No, I completely concur with what you say there.... I think the concession is very well worth having that there is absolutely no proof at all that Christianity makes people behave better.
CRAIG: Wait a minute. I didn't concede that.... I said I wasn't going to argue that because it's irrelevant, but by no means did I concede that....
One might chalk this up to Craig's effort to keep things on the track he carefully laid for the evening. Indeed, at one point he said, "We're not here tonight to debate the social impact of religion [or OT ethics or biblical inerrancy]—all interesting and important topics, no doubt, but not the subject of tonight's debate." But his impatience was more than occasional. It actually reflected his settled dissatisfaction with appealing to social impact in defending orthodoxy. As he writes in Reasonable Faith:
[T]he apologetic for Christianity based on the human predicament is an extremely recent phenomenon, associated primarily with Francis Schaeffer. Often it is referred to as "cultural apologetics" because of its analysis of post-Christian culture. This approach constitutes an entirely different sort of apologetics than the traditional models, since it is not concerned with epistemological issues of justification and warrant. Indeed, in a sense it does not even attempt to show in a positive sense that Christianity is true; it simply explores the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false. In this respect, this approach is somewhat akin to existentialism: the precursors of this approach were also precursors of existentialism, and much of its analysis of the human predicament is drawn from the insights of 20th-century atheistic existentialism.
I find much of this to be odd, and I think it helps to say why in some detail; it helps to set the course for this book:
Speaking of his concern that "the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking people," Craig remarks, "In Europe, we have seen the bitter fruit of secularization, which now threatens North America." I hope to show or remind the reader that the "bitter fruit" of rejecting Christianity extends well beyond the intellectual climate to the well-being of society in general.
It is useful, then, to consider the ways in which a Christian ethic serves and intersects with apologetics, whether we call the study "moral apologetics" or "apologetical ethics." It deals with four contrasts:
1. Christian Ethics vs. Secular Ethics (chaps. 1-5): When pushed, or even examined on the face, systems of right and wrong based on things other than God's rule and revelation are faulty; in contrast, the splendor of a full-orbed Christian ethic lends credence to the claim that God is its author and Lord.
2. Christian Ethicists vs. Secular Ethicists (chaps. 6-9): Though there are remarkable exceptions to the rule, those who lead out in Christian thought and instruction live admirable lives. In contrast, many, but not all, of those who espouse and advance non-Christian values and principles live unseemly or uninspiring lives.
3. Christian Fruit vs. Secular Fruit (chaps. 10-13): Allowing for the unfortunate consequences flowing from the actions of some who call themselves "Christian" and the gratifying products of non-Christian lives and cultures, we may still demonstrate that cultures are distinctively blessed when permeated—or even touched—by Christianity.
4. Admirable Apologetics vs. Irresponsible Apologetics (chaps. 14-18): The discourse in and around apologetics varies greatly in its quality; some of it is praiseworthy, some not. Both Christians and non-Christians can be found producing both sorts, and we will examine some examples. This section is essentially an introduction to "virtue apologetics." (Of course, critics of this book will likely jump at the chance to turn my expressions "irresponsible apologetics" and "infelicities" back on the book itself, and that is their prerogative—if only they will give the case I outline a fair reading.)
The scarcity of material on some topics makes research a daunting task—the prayer life of Shakespeare or evangelicals working in the film noir genre. But the one who works at moral apologetics has the opposite problem; he drowns in useful material. It is hard to open a newspaper, walk through a library, or turn on the television without seeing fresh evidence that a Christian approach to life makes people and societies flourish and that those who turn their backs on genuine Christianity are liable to behave wickedly. Similarly, the maxims of the lost are often pathetic or distasteful; the watchwords of the regenerate are more characteristically sound and stirring.
So much could be said about the contrasting moral worth of faith and faithlessness—in terms of constitution, walk, and effects—that a book of this size can only be a sampler, a taste of this and that.
And again, I do not pretend that this will carry the day against the skeptic, whether the nonbeliever who finds the faith unsavory or the Christian who thinks my enterprise is a waste of time. But I do hope this book will help prompt a closer look at the way Christians should be grateful for their ethical heritage and more inclined to cite it in their defense of the faith.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal observed, "No one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable." He was right, and demonstrably so, though his statement strikes the modern ear as outlandish and arrogant. Unfortunately, Christians have lost much of their conviction and will to speak as Pascal did. I hope to help replenish this loss of cultural confidence. We have a great moral story to tell, and it surely points to the Author of Light and Life.
I wish this book might be met at every turn with affirmation, but I know it will be an affront to many. First of all, it will offend the tender, and the not so tender, souls who gravitate toward cultural relativism, counting any sort of exceptionalism as arrogant and hopelessly biased. Second, at certain points it begs to differ with personalities and perspectives popular in the contemporary church, though I hope the reader will see that my concerns and positions are licit and plausible. Third, the broad scope of this book makes inevitable the complaint that I don't "do justice" to first one thing and then another. Fourth, the combination of academic and popular writing can frustrate purists in both camps.
Still, I pray the reader will see that this is a good faith effort at saying important and true things in an understandable, engaging, and decent way.