How Should We Treat Challenges To The Christian Faith?
This is a guest post from Gary Habermas (Ph.D., Michigan State University). Habermas is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Distinguished Research Professor at Liberty University. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.
It seems every year during the Easter season the popular press boldly announces new claims troubling to Christians. Stories emerge, often as if breaking news, promising exciting new evidence contrary to the Bible in the form of scholarly research, archaeological discovery, or scientific breakthrough.
In recent years believers have been challenged with questions such as: Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene? Did Jesus father one or more children? Was Mary supposed to be the appointed leader of the church but was denied that right by the male leaders? Was Judas Iscariot not really the betrayer of Jesus, but Jesus’ key disciple and hero? Were Jesus’ bones really discovered in His family’s burial tomb? These tests to Christian faith arise in other formats, too. Novels, movies, chain e-mails, or casual talks with friends often present alleged reasons for believing the Bible wrong.
Perhaps the majority of Christians are not troubled, simply assuming that antibiblical bias explains all such allegations. Others may react fearfully as if their faith were in danger of crumbling at any moment. But this reaction is almost never based on any thorough study of the claims themselves.
So how should Christians respond to ideas which, if they were true, might undermine our faith? Following are general suggestions we can utilize when evaluating disturbing challenges.
Divorce our emotions from the challenge.
We should immediately remind ourselves that the Bible has successfully withstood innumerable attacks over the centuries. Though many sensationalistic claims have been made against it, how many of them have ultimately proven the Bible wrong? That’s right, none! So why spend painful emotional energy before the conflicting claims are sorted out? Typically these controversies are forgotten precisely because they are unable to withstand the scrutiny of scholarly examination.
Even if the claim initially appears substantial, there is still no reason to worry. Researchers have noted that this type of emotional response is linked not to the challenges but to the questions we ask ourselves at such moments: “Oh no, what if my faith is misplaced?” or “What if the Bible is wrong?” But though we rightly are passionate about God’s Word, we should not succumb to troubling thoughts when others question its truth. Yes, a challenge has been proposed, so now we will study the specific claims being made.
Assume the Bible is true.
We should not adopt the critic’s view that the Bible is guilty until proven innocent. Remembering how Scripture has withstood the test of time inspires us to develop our response with confidence and patience. Neither uncritical acceptance nor superficial rejection of an anti-biblical claim is worthy of those who know God does not lie. Presupposing the Bible’s truthfulness enables the Christian to work toward an answer with persistence and the clarity of mind that stems from assurance.
Carefully analyze each critical allegation against the Bible.
Too many Christians attempt to counter critical views without having done their homework. Before we begin jousting with specific challenges, we need to understand the fundamental assumptions of the critic’s worldview. Often just knowing the opponent’s presuppositions helps us spot potential biases masquerading as scholarly research. Though we must still analyze the evidence, we need not accept pronouncements just because they are issued by an authority. If we know that Professor X discounts even the possibility of miracles, we may rightly assume that any relevant evidence for the miraculous did not factor into his reasoning.
A Christian respondent wisely focuses on those challenges which are stronger and more important. Questions on the periphery of the faith need not be treated with the same diligence as attacks on indispensable doctrines. Happily, our cardinal doctrines are also the best grounded, often established by multi-faceted evidence.
We should also understand and employ basic critical thinking skills. Some scholars exhibit an almost uncanny knack for dissecting opposing arguments and exposing their crucial weaknesses. This proficiency can be cultivated by asking certain essential questions. Is there an argument here based on evidence, or is someone simply making an assertion? If evidence is presented, how strongly does it actually support the critical claim? Are words being used for the purpose of explanation (cognitive meaning) or for persuasion (emotive meaning)? Are fallacies of reasoning employed (e.g., straw man: attacking something the Bible doesn’t even say)?
Get help from Christian scholars.
The Lord has blessed the church with scholars devoted to working in the very disciplines so often employed to attack biblical Christianity. The works of outstanding evangelical biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, scientists, and historians should be consulted. Often what the media presents as a daring new challenge to the Christian faith, we will find that experts have already thoroughly discredited.
Though we would like to have instant answers, they do not always come on our timetable. The wise Christian continues to assume the truthfulness of Scripture while awaiting solutions to problems. We happily confess we don’t have all the answers (only God does!), even while we confidently await further substantiation of biblical veracity.
To sum up, controlling our emotions is a prerequisite for responding adequately to critical challenges. We also reject the notion that Christianity is guilty until proven innocent. Then, there are no substitutes for knowing not only our position but also the assumptions that may color the critic’s allegations. We employ the basic tools involved in digesting and dissecting an argument. This provides the basis upon which we build our counter-challenge, aiming for the most crucial and vulnerable premises of our opponent’s position. We thoughtfully utilize the labors of faithful Christian scholars. And we are patient when answers don’t come quickly—because we know there are good answers.
This post is adapted from The Apologetics Study Bible with permission from B&H.