From Politics to Apologetics (Part 2)
Life After Death is a unique book. In it you attempt to make the case for an afterlife using biology, philosophy, physics, morality—just about every realm of knowledge except divine revelation. You attempt to answer the atheists on their own terms, believing they will not listen to appeals to the Bible. In that you are almost certainly right, but what makes you think they will listen to your appeals to reason?
My main goal is not to convert the atheists. I’d love to, of course, and I fantasize about a debate with Christopher Hitchens in which he finally concedes that he’s wrong, falls down on his knees, and accepts Christ. Well, that’s not entirely crazy. I debated Hitchens in 1989 at Georgetown on socialism. Many years later, Hitchens told my wife that after that debate he stopped calling himself a socialist. So maybe there is hope that he will also give up his atheism as he once relinquished his socialism.
But in general atheists come to my debates not to listen with an open mind but to show me up. My goal is to counter them, to flummox them, and in some cases to expose them as fools. This is necessary to temper atheist arrogance. As long as these guys think they are the “party of reason” and we are the “party of blind faith,” they don’t see any need to take us seriously. But their attitude changes when we use the techniques of reason to lay them flat on their back.
Now there is a group that I am trying to convince, and that’s the group of seekers who may have rejected the institutional church, but who are wrestling with questions and are open to finding out the answers. I also think that secular apologetics is very invigorating and empowering for Christians, because it shows them that there is a good, logical case to be made for Christian beliefs. We are not affirming propositions by faith that run against the evidence; we are affirming propositions that are completely in line with the evidence. Faith itself is something reasonable: it is a reasonable way to discover and affirm truths that lie outside the realm of rational inquiry.
Where do you think the new atheism is headed?
Ultimately it’s headed for hell, same destination as the old atheism. But in today’s secular culture, the new atheists are rock stars. They are admired by the media, and influentially ensconced in education. Part of the reason is they are a suave bunch, not like the grumpy old atheists. They are also sophisticated in surfing on the wave of current events. Just a few days after 9/11, Richard Dawkins published an article saying, in effect: Look what religion makes people do. Another new atheist called 9/11 a “faith-based initiative.”
See how cunning these guys are. We Christians are have to be better prepared for this. The new atheism is going mainstream and is being echoed by comedians, showing up in sitcoms, omnipresent on the Internet, and finding its way into the textbooks.
Some would say you are making a strategic mistake by not using the Bible more, because Christians believe God uses his divine revelation to convince people of the truth of Christ and of the reality of their own need for Him. Plus, you concede that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ, which is based in large part on the witness of Scripture, is very strong. What do you think? Is there a risk that excluding Scripture as a source of knowledge about the afterlife will simply reinforce people’s anti-religious prejudice? How close to the kingdom do you think your form of argumentation can get people to faith?
I don’t exclude Scripture, but I recognize that it is not going to convince someone who rejects the authority of Scripture to adjudicate the matter. If I say the resurrection happened because Scripture says so, the non-Christian and the agnostic and the atheist are not going to be persuaded by that. For them, a verse of Scripture would be as convincing as if a Muslim said, “I can prove that Muhammad took his night journey into heaven on a chariot. See, it says so here in the Qur’an.”
These are in-house kinds of arguments and they are successful only when those who already accept the premises. We have to recognize that we no longer live in a society where Christian assumptions are taken for granted. This is the true meaning of secularism. In Life After Death I make an argument for the resurrection by saying: Let’s look at the historical facts that are in the Bible and that even mainstream historians accept. Christ was crucified, the disciples found the tomb empty, they claim to have seen the risen Christ, and they started a movement of Christian conversion that brought much of Europe, and eventually much of the world, to Christianity. Now how do we make sense of this?
I am trying to show that even considered historically, the resurrection is the best explanation for the data. It would be as though an archeologist, digging in the Middle East, were to turn up new evidence for Christ’s miracles or resurrection. The Christian world would find this exhilarating. Why? In one sense you could say: No big deal, we already know that from Scripture. But it is a big deal, because now we have something we didn’t have before, which is independent corroboration of the claims of Scripture. Even people who reject Scripture would have to take this seriously. And this may lead them to change their minds about Scripture and take it more seriously.
Having said all this, apologetics is not a substitute for faith. It is the task of removing the intellectual obstacles so that people are open to the experience of faith.
Outside of Scripture, what do you think is the single most compelling evidence for life after death?
The best empirical evidence comes from Near Death Experiences, although these do no more than to show that some form of consciousness survives death. In Life After Death, I offer three independent arguments for the afterlife.
The first is the argument from brain science, the second is the argument from philosophy, and the third is the argument from morality. The argument from brain science examines the question of whether the mind and the brain are simply the same thing. If the mind is simply a name for the operations of the brain, then it’s hard to envision life after death. The brain dies, and the mind dies along with it.
But if the mind cannot be reduced to the brain, and if minds are immaterial and brains are material, then we are talking about two different things. Of course they are interdependent—here in life the mind manifests itself through the manifold of the brain. But this is like saying that music manifests itself through the manifold of my CD player. Smash the player and the music stops. But the player isn’t the cause of the music; it is merely the mechanism for the sound waves to be expressed. If my CD player dies I can still listen to the music on another player or in an open-air concert. In the same way, brains can perish but consciousness can live on.
I am only giving you a hint of how these arguments ago. It’s really exciting to follow them, because you learn a lot even while getting thrilling confirmation of your Christian beliefs.
Any one of my three arguments is decisive, but taken together they make a formidable case. Of course it is in the nature of the subject that we cannot be absolutely sure. We can be sure on the basis of faith, but we cannot be sure on the basis of reason alone.
For this reason I say that I can prove life after death by a preponderance of the evidence, but I cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Consequently, I also include in the book practical arguments: does it make sense to believe in life after death, would belief make my life better, has belief been good for society and so on.
What’s it like always being the smartest person in the room? How do you keep your bearings?
I don’t care about being the smartest person in the room. I do try to outsmart my atheist opponents in debate. It’s important for them and for the audience to see that the Christian position can answer not only the weak points of the other side but also its strong points. The atheists act as if they are defending the “round earth” position, and we are defending the “flat earth” position. If this is so, then they should win every debate.
So if we can challenge them on their own terms, fight them with their own weapons, and force them to tap out, that’s a very good thing. It isn’t just a defeat for the atheist, it’s a defeat for the whole paradigm that says that Christianity is based on illusion, Christianity is based on wish fulfillment, Christianity is against science and reason, and so on. When we avoid these issues we concede valuable intellectual and cultural real estate to our enemies, who are using it to take over our children and our culture. I, for one, want to do my part to prevent this.
Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.