The Case for Faith: Trust (Not God, But) Me

By DOUG SHAVER
November 2004, July 2009

Preface

Others have shown, as effectively as I could, how thoroughly Strobel has failed to make The Case for Faith. Readers not already aware of the problems with his arguments are invited to read reviews on the Secular Web by Kyle Gerkin at https://infidels.org/library/modern/kyle_gerkin/objections_sustained/ and Paul Doland at https://infidels.org/library/modern/paul_doland/strobel.html.

Rather than duplicate those efforts, I offer here some comments on an apologetic motif that Strobel plays throughout The Case for Faith and also touched on in The Case for Christ. We might call it the Argument from Skeptical Depravity.

Evangelical Christianity, as presented by Strobel and many other of its advocates, affirms that all skepticism about its teachings is ultimately due to a refusal to accept God's moral sovereignty over mankind. In the worldview of those evangelicals, nobody really doubts the resurrection just because it is incredible. Instead, skeptics doubt only in order to excuse their rejection of Jesus' teachings — as evangelical Christianity interprets those teachings. In that world view, nobody accepts the truth of evolution because of the scientific evidence supporting it. Instead, people accept it only in order to justify noncompliance with God's commandments — or what those evangelicals think those commandments are.

Obviously, we skeptics beg to differ. But then, Strobel is not really talking to us. Books like The Case for Faith are not written for unbelievers. They are written to assure believers that they may safely ignore anyone who tells them that their beliefs are unreasonable. Its message is that when all is said and done, only an incorrigible sinner can hold on to any doubt about the truth of evangelical dogma.

Strobel goes through the motions of extolling the virtue of questioning everything, including Christianity. He portrays himself here, as he did in The Case for Christ, as a gung-ho skeptic who won't just take anybody's word for anything. His portrayal is a sham, though. To the believer with doubts, his bottom-line message is: Ask all the questions you want, but you'd better come up with Christianity's answers if you know what's good for you.

The faith that Strobel is defending is not just belief in a god, nor belief in just any version of the Christian God. It is belief in the particular God of evangelical Christianity. No other faith matters to him. Strobel cares nothing about the faith of liberal Christians, or of Jews, or of Muslims, or of any followers of any other religion. It is not likely that he wrote the book with any intention of assuring Roman Catholics that their faith is justified. As far as evangelicals are concerned, there is no case to be made for anyone's faith but theirs.

In principle, of course, it just could be the case that of all the religions in the world, Strobel's actually is the only right one. If he could prove that, I would say more power to him. But he does not, and does not really try to. His argument ultimately boils down to the unsupported claim that anyone who is sincere about wanting to know the truth about God will somehow know that his sect, and his alone, is speaking that truth.

Comment on terminology

Christianity is a religion of great diversity, and attempts by outsiders to identify and label its various subdivisions are fraught with risk. Many Christians who identify themselves as evangelicals do not accept everything Strobel says or implies. In particular, there are many evangelicals who (a) have no problem with evolution, (b) have rejected the traditional concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment, and (c) are not wedded to the dogma of inerrancy.

Strobel presents his own beliefs, however, as definitively Christian. He says, in effect if not explicitly, that Christians reject evolution and see no errors or contradictions in the Bible. By strong implication, he is claiming that anyone who accepts evolution or who thinks there could be some inaccuracies in the Bible is not a true Christian.

If that is not in fact what he believes, he has no one but himself to blame if his readers infer that he does. He knew, or surely should have known, that no reasonable person would have construed his writing otherwise. If you want to win people to Christ, and if you honestly think that a sincere Bible-believing Christian can accept whatever science has to say about human origins, then when you write a book defending Christianity, you don't include a whole chapter devoted to an attack on evolution.

Those who do in general agree with Strobel, though, are the most vocal and confrontational of evangelicals, and so the focus of my critique is against them. I have avoided qualifiers for the sake of rhetorical economy, but the reader is advised for the sake of fairness that the next evangelical Christian he or she meets might be of the opinion that Strobel is giving evangelical Christianity a bad name.

(Further observations in my essay What do you call them?)

A former believer

Strobel's investigation ostensibly began when he interviewed Charles Templeton, an early colleague of Billy Graham who left Christianity at around the same time Graham was about to become famous. In some introductory remarks, Strobel observes:

For Charles Templeton — ironically once Billy Graham's pulpit partner and close friend — questions about God have hardened into bitter opposition toward Christianity. (p. 8)

(All citations are from Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity, Zondervan, 2000.)

I have never read anything Templeton wrote, so I don't know how much bitterness he feels, but the man Strobel describes when recounting their interview does not seem bitter. He seems only appropriately passionate about the absurdity of believing in a benevolent God while witnessing the unspeakable suffering that exists in this world.

Strobel himself admits to having once felt just as strongly that the Argument from Evil made perfectly good sense. But he has changed his mind, while Templeton has not.

Today Templeton's faith — repeatedly punctured by persistent and obstinate doubts — has leaked away. (p. 9)

Strobel presents no evidence that there ever was anything persistently obstinate about Templeton's doubts. The reader is supposed to infer, by the time he or she has finished reading the book, that only a persistent obstinance can sustain doubts about Christianity.

Perhaps the following portion of their interview was supposed to demonstrate Templeton's obstinacy.

"Would you like to believe?" I asked.

"Of course!" he exclaimed. "If I could, I would. I'm eighty-three years old. I've got Alzheimer's. I'm dying, for goodness sake! But I've spent my life thinking about it and I'm not going to change now." (p. 15)

"I'm not going to change now" does sound stubborn, but Templeton has just gotten through telling Strobel that he is incapable of believing in God, that his skepticism is not a matter of choice.

If Templeton did have a genuine choice, surely a man in his condition would choose to believe. Considering the context, then, "I'm not going to change now" cannot mean "I simply refuse to change." It must mean rather "It will not happen because it cannot happen — it is not a possibility."

Strobel in due course makes his own position clear enough. He implicitly tells the reader: Don't believe Templeton; of course he could believe if he really wanted to.

Strobel claims that his talk with Templeton moved him to undertake a search for answers, putting his investigative skills to work by challenging the nation's best apologists to justify their faith.

I wanted to determine once again whether there are soul-satisfying responses when Christianity is confronted with life's harshest and most perplexing questions that send nagging doubts into our hearts and minds. Can faith really stand up to reason? Or will rigorous intellectual scrutiny chase God away? (p. 22)

Strobel won a few awards in his newspapering days, partly because he knew how to use words effectively. He presumably knows that while one can chase an illusion, one does not chase away an illusion. If rigorous intellectual scrutiny can chase anything away, it must have really been there to start with, and if something was really there, then it was no illusion.

Strobel is here signaling his agenda. He is assuring the believers who read his book that rigorous intellectual scrutiny, if it leads to disbelief, is not about looking for the truth. Rigorous intellectual scrutiny, if it leads to disbelief, must have been motivated by a desire to avoid the truth.

The Argument from Evil

The Case for Faith covers eight objections that intellectuals have historically raised against evangelical Christianity. Some of them have been also been raised against non-evangelical Christianity as well as the other major monotheistic faiths, and chief among them is the Argument from Evil. For the solution to that one, Strobel turns to philosopher Peter John Kreeft. Their interview includes this exchange:

"But to say there's no possibility that a loving God who knows far more than we do, including about our future, could possibly tolerate such evil as Templeton sees in Africa — well, that strikes me as intellectually arrogant."

That took me aback. "Really?" I asked. "How so?"

"How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range goods that we couldn't foresee?" he asked. (p. 32)

Well, all we skeptics are saying is "It doesn't make sense, and so we cannot believe it." The apologists respond, "Granted, it does not seem to make sense, but you must believe us when we tell you that it would make sense if you had infinite wisdom. If you can't take our word for that, then you deserve an eternity of punishment."

Now, who is really being arrogant?

The very best rebuttal against the Argument from Evil can prove no more than that it is logically possible for a benevolent God to allow evil. I don't believe it accomplishes even that, but we can stipulate that it does. Proof of the logical possibility of a proposition does not by itself justify belief in the proposition. There is a world of logical difference between "It could be true" and "It certainly is true." Proof of the latter makes any doubt unreasonable. Proof of the former leaves room for doubt: Either belief or disbelief might be reasonable.

Even if evangelicals could demonstrate that their belief in God's benevolence is reasonable, they have never demonstrated that it is unreasonable to reject that belief. Believers say that for all we know, there is a benevolent God. Fine. I can stipulate for the sake of argument that there could be one. But believers can show us nothing to justify a belief that there must be one, and until they do, their accusations that our doubt is proof of arrogance look more than a little projective.

Kreeft acknowledges that evangelicals are short of proof that God must exist.

"If we had absolute proof instead of clues, then you could no more deny God than you could deny the sun. If we had no evidence at all, you could never get there. God gives us just enough evidence so that those who want him can have him. Those who want to follow the clues will.

"The Bible says, 'Seek and you shall find.' It doesn't say everybody will find him; it doesn't say nobody will find him. Some will find. Who? Those who seek. Those whose hearts are set on finding him and who follow the clues." (p. 33)

In other words, you can believe if you really want to believe.

It is true up to a point that if a person wants to become convinced of something, there are ways for him to talk himself into it, so to speak. But Strobel has told us that he is trying to see whether Christianity can withstand, in his own words, "rigorous intellectual scrutiny." It is not rigorous intellectual scrutiny to make oneself believe something because one wants to believe it, even if one has that option. Rigorous intellectual scrutiny of a belief must reach its conclusion quite independently of whether one wants to believe it. A faith that can be justified only if you want to believe does not, by definition, withstand rigorous intellectual scrutiny.

Before he's done with Kreeft, Strobel elicits another dig at skepticism's supposed arrogance.

"Atheism is cheap on people, because it snobbishly says nine out of ten people through history have been wrong about God and have had a lie at the core of their hearts." (p. 35)

We have to wonder whether, if he had been a contemporary of Galileo, Kreeft would have agreed with him and, if so, considered himself a snob for rejecting an idea that had been held, at the time, throughout history by a lot more than nine-tenths of the world's population.

I must note also that I am one atheist among many who reject the notion that believers have "a lie at the core of their hearts." I believe theism is an error, but I do not believe it is a lie. A lie entails intent to deceive. Those who call an error a lie are assuming deceitful intent where none necessarily exists.

On miracles

For his next chapter, Strobel interviews theologian William Lane Craig about miracles. There are many people of great faith who don't believe in miracles, but Strobel is not defending their faith. Evangelical Christianity declares that it is necessary to believe in miracles, that those who do not will burn in hell forever.

In this chapter and subsequent ones, many of the apologists' arguments rest on the premise that the gospels are historically accurate. Strobel attempted to prove this premise in The Case for Christ, and in this book he gives a synopsis of the earlier argument. It is a fallacious argument, and his repetition does not change that, but the Christians for whom he wrote this book will of course take his word for it that the gospels have been proven true. Thus we get this comment on the miracles that, according to the gospel authors, Jesus performed.

"In fact," he [Craig] concluded, "the only reason to be skeptical that these were not genuine miracles rather than psychosomatic healings would be philosophical — do you believe that such events can occur or not? The historicity of the events is not in doubt." (p. 68)

Not in doubt? Not in anybody's mind? The only thing anybody argues about is whether he used natural or supernatural means to do those things? This assertion — the historicity of the events is not in doubt — borders on reckless disregard for the truth. Craig and Strobel know full well that many people strongly doubt the historicity of the miracle stories — not just how they might have happened, but whether they happened at all. How does Craig justify this misrepresentation? How does Strobel justify passing it on without so much as a token objection?

We should remember that Strobel is ostensibly doing journalism here. This quotation would be like a reporter quoting President Bush saying "The existence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction is not in doubt" while failing to acknowledge even the existence of anyone who disagreed. Strobel must have been thinking along the lines of: "We Christians do not doubt that Jesus healed people, raised the dead, etc. etc., because we do not doubt the accuracy of the gospels. As far as we're concerned, these are incontrovertible facts, and the opinions of numerous people to the contrary are simply irrelevant."

Strobel again is assuring believers that they may serenely disregard all skeptics' objections to their faith, confident in the knowledge that a hard-nosed reporter has already proved how wrong those objections are. Skeptics don't raise any objections out of concern for evidence or logic. Skeptics raise objections because they're just pigheaded: They don't want to believe, and they'll use any excuse they can think of not to believe.

Let us now stipulate the historicity of the healings for a moment. They either occurred by natural means or they did not, and if not, then they were miracles. Now, psychosomatic healings do happen. I don't think that even Craig would deny that. They are actually quite common, perhaps commoner than the average apologist realizes, but the point is that they do happen, and Craig knows or ought to know that they happen. But, he says, "the only reason to be skeptical that these were not genuine miracles rather than psychosomatic healings would be philosophical — do you believe that such events can occur or not?" In other words, according to Craig, we are obliged to assume a miracle unless we are philosophically committed to naturalism. By this reasoning, if a person believes in the possibility of miracles, then anything that could be a miracle must be considered a miracle until proved otherwise. That is the implication of the only reason to be skeptical: If you are committed to naturalism, then you are entitled to doubt, but otherwise you must believe.

But this is absurd. Even if I believe in miracles, I don't have to believe that every healing is a miracle. The mere fact, if it is a fact, that God sometimes heals people supernaturally does not imply that psychosomatic healings never can happen or never did happen when Jesus was in a sick person's vicinity. If evangelicals want to argue that a presumption against miracles is philosophically unjustified, then we can discuss that proposition. Maybe it is wrong to say, "It cannot have been a miracle, and so there must be a natural explanation." But surely it is at least as wrong to say, "It could have been a miracle, and so there can be no natural explanation."

Evolution

Strobel next moves on to evolution and an interview with Walter L. Bradley.

The complete title of this chapter is: Objection #3: Evolution Explains Life, So God Isn't Needed. I don't know any biologist or other scientist, regardless of his or her opinion about God, who would assert "Evolution explains life." It does nothing of the sort, and I have never heard of anybody who thinks it does. Maybe Strobel believed it before he got religion, and maybe he is under the impression that all atheists think the way he used to think.

Whatever . . . Strobel became a minor celebrity with his publication of The Case for Christ, and because of his work at the Chicago Tribune he was not exactly unknown before then. He has attended at least one press conference in the White House. The man has some connections. My point in mentioning those things is: If he had wanted to interview a reputable biologist who disagreed with evolution, he could have, if there were such a biologist to be found. I suspect he tried to find one and failed.

Bradley's professional credentials are not in biology. He earned his Ph.D. in materials science and spent much of his career teaching mechanical engineering. According to Strobel, he is qualified to critique evolution because he is "an expert on polymers and thermodynamics, both of which are important in the life-origin debate." (p. 93)

Strobel seems to be aware, sort of, that the theory of evolution is not a life-origin theory. If evangelicals could prove that life must have had a supernatural origin — that the first living cells could not have appeared except by divine intervention — the theory of evolution as currently understood by essentially every biologist in the world would be untouched. The problem for evangelicals is not that evolution precludes a divine origin for life. Their problem is that it precludes a particular divine origin for life, the one described in Genesis. And even at that, the only thing precluded by evolution is a literal interpretation of the Genesis story. Roman Catholics and a majority of Protestant Christians have no problem reconciling evolution with an allegorical interpretation of the Hebrew creation myth. An allegorical Bible won't work for evangelicals, though. Their dogma — including the dogma that all skeptics deserve to suffer eternal torment in hell — depends on a Bible that is factually correct in every historical and scientific detail.

Some evangelicals manage to reconcile evolution with an inerrant Bible by some imaginative reading between the lines of Genesis, but most inerrantists oppose such an accommodation. The prevailing evangelical orthodoxy is that evolution implies atheism because it contradicts scripture. From the evangelical perspective, contradicting scripture is tantamount to denying God's existence. In any case, they have to start somewhere, and that means trying to prove that God had to be involved in the history of life at some point. It so happens that evolution does look, superficially, a lot like abiogenesis, at least to many nonscientists, and so it's understandable that evangelicals think an attack on the latter is pretty much equivalent to an attack on the former.

The attractiveness of attacking abiogenesis rather than evolution should be obvious, too. The theory of evolution is so heavily fortified with facts that it is nearly as impregnable as any scientific theory gets. A theory of abiogenesis, on the other hand, has not even been developed yet, and so there is nothing there for scientists to defend. Nonexistent targets can be very attractive sometimes. Once again, though, Strobel uses the issue as an opportunity to make his real point, which is that the scientific arguments don't really have anything to do with facts, but instead have much to do with rejecting Christianity.

Early in the chapter, he quotes Michael Behe, popularizer of the Intelligent Design hypothesis, as saying, "Many people, including many important and well-respected scientists, just don't want there to be anything beyond nature." (p. 91) And why would that be? Strobel claims that in his own case, before he became a Christian, he liked evolution because it justified an immoral lifestyle:

I was more than happy to latch onto Darwinism as an excuse to jettison the idea of God so I could unabashedly pursue my own agenda in life without moral constraints. (p. 91)

And then he affirms on the next page:

I knew that if scientists could convincingly demonstrate how life could emerge purely through natural chemical processes, then there's no need for God. (p. 92)

In other words, the existence of life proves God's existence — and nothing else does. Explain the origin of life naturalistically, and you're left without any evidence of God's existence. This is an intriguing claim, considering its context. In the previous chapter, Strobel and Craig reviewed four arguments for God's existence, none of which had anything directly to do with abiogenesis, and any one of which, the reader was obviously supposed to think, is sufficient to prove that there must be a God.

In short, Strobel has simply contradicted himself.

Not that any of his primary readership is likely to notice. He's telling believers what they want to hear, which is that evolution is just a really great excuse that scientists have cooked up for living in defiance of God's commandments.

Divine savagery

The next chapter deals with a topic that combines the Argument from Evil with an issue of the Bible's credibility: Old Testament stories of the conquest of Canaan, during which God ordered the Israelites to slaughter their enemies' children. In his introductory comments, Strobel again suggests that if you find those stories hard to believe, it could be because you just don't want to follow God's commandments.

During my years as an atheist, I mocked the fantastical tales and blatant mythology that I believed disqualified the Bible from being a divinely inspired book — an opinion, incidentally, that quite conveniently relieved me from any need to follow its moral dictates. Although I had never thoroughly studied its contents, I was quick to reject the Bible in order to free myself to live the kind of corrupt lifestyle that was blatantly at odds with its tenets. (p. 127)

Of course this begs the question of why anyone would want to follow the dictates of a god whose genocidal proclivities make Hitler look like a Boy Scout. To attempt to answer that question, Strobel interviews philosopher Norman L. Geisler. The inadequacies of Geisler's response are covered in the other reviews I have linked to. What I note here is that Strobel again goes off on the tangent of why skeptics are not satisfied with such responses. Apparently, we're just being stubborn.

I read him the colorful words of a frustrated spiritual seeker:

". . . . It seems to me that an all-powerful God could do a much better job of convincing people of His existence than any evangelist ever does. . . . Just write it in the sky, nice and big: 'Here's your proof, Ed. Believe in Me or go to hell! Sincerely, the Almighty.'"

Looking up at Geisler, I said, "What would you say to him?"

Geisler was a bit bemused. "My answer would be that God did do something like that," he replied. "Psalm 19:1 says, 'The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.' In fact, it's written across the heavens so vividly that more and more scientists who search the stars are becoming Christians." (p. 140)

Geisler is more explicit later in the interview, when Strobel has occasion to ask, "Then you don't think God is making it hard for people to believe?"

"On the contrary, the evidence is there if people will be willing to see it. It's not for a lack of evidence that people turn from God; it's from their pride or their will. God is not going to force anyone into the fold." (p. 141)

The idea that one is being forced to do something merely by confronting a fact is, as far as I know, unique to some Christians. They — and they alone, so far as I know — claim that it would violate our free will if God were to do something that left us with no doubt about his existence. It's an incoherent notion. It is very convenient for evangelicals, though, who like the idea that the evidence is sufficient for people who want to believe, but not for people who prefer not to believe. This is obviously a very handy way to separate sheep from goats. In a subculture where correct thinking is valued far more than correct behavior, the mere desire to believe what one is told to believe is deemed a fundamental virtue. Without such a desire, you can't even get in the door.

Our way or no way

According to evangelicals, skepticism is motivated by a desire to live immorally. However, few evangelicals dare claim that all skeptics actually live immoral lives. Many skeptics are very moral, and evangelicals know this, and so they have to find something else wrong with their character. To find out what it is, Strobel interviews Ravi Zacharias, who is identified on his Web site as an "international speaker and author." What he speaks and writes about is, of course, evangelical Christianity.

In this chapter, Strobel is most explicit about his purpose. He is defending not faith in general, but a particular faith. According to evangelical Christians, only people who believe what they believe about God and Jesus have any hope of avoiding eternal damnation. Strobel challenges Zacharaias to defend that claim.

"There are moral-living Muslims, Jews, Christians, Mormons, and Hindus," I pointed out to Zacharias. "Isn't how a person lives and treats his neighbor more important than what he believes theologically?"

"How a person lives and how he treats his neighbor is very important," came his reply. "But it is not more important than what he believes, because the way he lives is reflective of what he believes." (p. 156)

Few would dispute that a person's life will reflect his beliefs, but by that reasoning, would not good living by logical necessity reflect good beliefs? Well, good is not good enough. In evangelical ethics, correctness matters more than goodness.

"The word 'sin' means missing the mark. And if that is a correct definition, then the grace of God becomes the most important truth. Apart from him, we cannot even believe what is right, let alone live the right way." (p. 156)

That some unbelievers do live the right way would seem to contradict that, but to an evangelical, a life that does not include right believing is not and cannot be a life rightly lived. On the other hand, right believing can offset any amount and any kind of wrong living. Strobel asks Zacharias about serial killer David Berkowitz, who underwent a prison conversion to Christianity. According to evangelical dogma, he will go to heaven, but a saintly skeptic who dies an unbeliever will go to hell. Zacharias tells Strobel,

"Admittedly, what David Berkowitz did was violent and evil. There's no question about that. However, we have to look at this in the whole scheme of God's plan. You see, there are worse things than death or murder."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Though it's hard to comprehend," he said, "the worst thing is to say to God that you don't need him." (pp. 158-9)

And we are told again that there is no real excuse for not understanding this. Those who do not believe it are just not being open-minded enough.

"You deal with a lot of spiritual seekers now," I said. "What do you tell them?"

"The Bible says, 'You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.' Think about that — that's an amazing promise. I encourage them to bring their heart and mind to a receptive mode and to not spare their intellect in testing the truth of the Bible. For any genuine person who brings an unprejudiced view, I don't see how he or she can walk away except saying there is nothing like this on the face of the earth." (p. 165)

I think he is right, strictly speaking. There is indeed nothing on the face of the earth like evangelical Christianity. To be unique, though, is not necessarily to be true, or to be good. And it is not good to build one's worldview on an assumption that all who fail to believe in it must be ungenuine or prejudiced. Rigorous intellectual inquiry, which Strobel ostensibly endorsed in Chapter 1, does not ever declare beforehand what conclusions it must reach. And whatever conclusions it does reach, it does not preemptively impugn the honesty of those who reach different conclusions.

Cruel and unusual punishment

Strobel then moves on the doctrine of eternal damnation. This doctrine is not, strictly speaking, an obstacle to faith. Just as most Christians have no problem with evolution, the world abounds in people who have profound faith in God but no belief in hell as evangelicals picture it, and those people include the majority of Christians. However, like most evangelicals, Strobel thinks anyone who doesn't believe in hell is sure to go there, and so his next chapter is an attempt to prove that a just and loving God has no choice but to make that happen. For this he turns to another evangelical philosopher, J.P. Moreland.

The foundation of Moreland's defense is the evangelical party line that anyone who ends up in hell has in effect chosen to go there, and that in any case they really do deserve it. And, skeptics, of course, deserve it more than anyone else.

"What is the most heinous thing a person can do in this life? Most people, because they don't think much about God, will say it's harming animals or destroying the environment or hurting another person. And, no question, all of those are horrible. But they pale in light of the worst thing a person can do, which is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself." (p. 181)

And once more, we're told that if we find this incredible, it's not because it's preposterous. It's because we're just being pigheaded.

"I'll suggest one more thing. God maintains a delicate balance between keeping his existence sufficiently evident so people will know he's there and yet hiding his presence enough so that people who want to choose to ignore him can do it. This way, their choice of destiny is really free. (p. 189)

So, in order to believe, I have to talk myself into it. There is not enough evidence to convince me otherwise, and evangelicals admit it: the evidence by itself is not compelling. God has given me just enough evidence so that I can make myself believe in him if believing is what I really want to do.

But what if I think it better to believe only what the evidence compels me to believe rather than what I wish were true? Strobel is telling me that nothing could be more immoral than that. Such thinking, he says, makes me worse than any mass murderer. Let's look at that again. Moreland said, "The worst thing a person can do . . . is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself."

That might seem like a self-evident truth to Moreland. To me it smacks of creating God in the image of man, and not an admirable man, either. A God who finds an insult to his dignity a worse sin than the torturing of innocent children deserves to be insulted. If God is real, and if he really is like that, then there is surely no hope for me at all. Of course, Strobel would now say that I'm proving his point, that I really would rather go to hell than worship his God. Well, actually, no, I wouldn't. I am neither so prideful nor so courageous. I would not prefer an eternity of torment to whatever would spare me such a fate. Convince me that hell is real, and I'll do whatever it takes not to go there. The problem — and the reason there is no hope for me if the evangelicals are right — is that what it takes not to go there is to believe in Lee Strobel.

Of course Strobel would deny that. He would say I must believe not in him but in Jesus. But I know nothing about Jesus except what Christians like Strobel tell me. He will say that he is not telling me anything. He will say that he is only referring me to what God has revealed to the world in the Bible. But I don't know that the Bible is God's word except on Lee Strobel's say-so. I don't even know that there is a God for the Bible to be the word of, except on Lee Strobel's say-so. He claims to have evidence. I find his evidence unconvincing. He himself admits that it is sufficient only to convince someone who wants to be convinced. And there is the rub.

Why should I want to be convinced? Because Lee Strobel says I must believe. He says his words are God's words, but I have only his word for that. According to evangelical dogma, Lee Strobel or any other Christian talking to me is the same as God talking to me. If I won't take his word for it, then in the divine scheme of things, that is equivalent to mocking and dishonoring and refusing to love God himself. No wonder so many Christians buy Strobel's books. He is telling them: "If skeptics won't believe you, it's only because they're really rejecting God."

Strobel's next chapter addresses Christianity's history of atrocities. There is little in it directed against skepticism as such, and so we're not addressing it here but skipping to the book's final chapter.

Doubt, but trust

In his final chapter, Strobel is explicit about his target audience. He seeks to reassure Christians with doubts that there is nothing wrong with doubt as long as they don't give in to it. To make this point he interviews Lynn Anderson, a former minister who now heads Hope Network Ministries, an organization for training church leaders. Here we learn that doubt is just another kind of temptation. It is not about the intellect, but about the appetite.

"In your experience," I said to Anderson, "do some people claim to have intellectual objections, even though their doubts have another underlying source?"

"Yes, that's certainly true," he said. . . . "In fact, I personally think all unbelief ultimately has some other underlying reason. Sometimes a person may honestly believe their problem is intellectual, but actually they haven't sufficiently gotten in touch with themselves to explore other possibilities." (p. 234)

And according to Anderson, those "other possibilities" are likely to involve ignoble motives, such as a fear of having to give up a sinful lifestyle.

"Here's my experience," Anderson said in summary. "When you scratch below the surface, there's either a will to believe or there's a will not to believe. That's the core of it."

I stroked my chin in thought. "So you're saying faith is a choice," I said.

Anderson nodded in agreement. "That's exactly right," he said. "It's a choice." (p. 236)

Well, no, it isn't. Nobody can change his or her belief by a mere act of will. A deliberate change of belief requires positive action and even then is not guaranteed to work. And even if it were a choice, neither Strobel nor any of his interviewees explains why a skeptic ought to make a decision to believe in evangelical Christianity rather than any other religion.

Why should I resolve to do whatever it takes to convince myself that what seems improbable is true? As I write this, I have been debating apologists on the Internet for over five years, and the answer sooner or later comes back to: I should believe it, or do whatever I must do to convince myself of it, because they say it is so. Few will put it so baldly, but they leave themselves with nothing else. If I am to undertake a journey of faith, I can have no other reason but that a Christian told me that I must undertake that journey. I have examined the arguments for God's existence and found them to be without merit. Christians say I can believe anyway if I resolve to do so. But why should I be so resolved, except because they say I should? Strobel would have me think that in doubting what he says about God, I am actually doubting God himself. Of course, he doesn't think he is making such an arrogant claim. He could never believe he was guilty of such arrogance.

Or, maybe he could believe it, but just doesn't want to believe it.

Reflections

The doctrine of Skeptical Depravity is one of the most pernicious that evangelical Christianity has embraced. Of course evangelicals are not alone in demonizing their critics. It was reported during the Cold War that the Soviet Union would confine political dissidents to mental institutions on the theory that only a crazy person could doubt the truth of Communism. And some skeptics return the evangelicals' favor, saying that no intelligent person can be a Christian. It's all the same accusation with different labels. We have people who think the truth has been revealed to them, and they are convinced that anyone who fails to see that same truth is defective in some way. If they're not crazy, they're stupid, and if they're neither crazy nor stupid, then they're just immoral. No matter who does it or what they call their adversaries, it is dangerous.

When any group gets it into their head that only defective people can fail to agree with them, there is little or nothing that could stop them from repeating history's worst barbarities. Evangelicals like to remind us of the body count racked up by atheist dictators, but homicidal tyrants of all kinds are motivated by the same thing. They fear dissent. Tyrants fear people who will not be told how to think. There is no room in their universe for people who question their authority, and people who will question their judgment or their wisdom are bound to question their authority sooner or later. When you can't be wrong, anybody who says you might be wrong is a potential threat.

Evangelicals will not say that skeptics ought to be killed. Of course not. But many of them do say that we deserve to suffer an eternity of torment for our skepticism. If enough people come to agree with them, it is difficult to see what would prevent a few of them from getting the notion that this world would be a much better place if we skeptics were removed from it as quickly as possible.


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(This page last updated on March 20, 2017.)