Defending the Faith Amid Attacks from Modern and Postmodern Critics

What’s a church without being assailed from all sides; after all, that’s how it all began when, in the first century, the Romans accused Christians of committing incest and cannibalism and being atheists.  Not much has changed since then except for new derogatory labels placed on Christians.  One book that captures the postmodern malice against the Christians faith was penned in 2006 by John Shelby Spong, a liberal bishop of Episcopalian Church, who entitled it, "The Sins of Scriptures: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love."  This is one of the books that set the stage for what’s going on today: Condemning the Bible-believing Christians as intolerant bigots and haters because they are not in agreement with the progressive agendas advocated by the likes of the BLM and LGBTQ advocates.  

Now, countering arguments justifying progressive measures is a lot harder to do than dealing with typical attacks against the Bible by their modern critics, such as pluralism, agnosticism, and atheism.  The reason is simple: When people on the Left accuse the Bible-affirming Christians of not supporting, for instance, same-sex marriage, there really isn’t much to defend because the accusers are right—Scripture does not support it!  But, when modern critics throw pluralism, agnosticism, and atheism at the believers to denounce their faith, there is much to defend because they are wrong!  Let me offer three brief examples involving Elaine Pagels (Princeton University), Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina), and Richard Dawkins (Oxford University).

First, as for Pagels, she represents religious pluralism in the sense that, according to her, a competing movement (i.e., Gnosticism) existed in the early church that taught that there was more than one way to salvation.  Pagels’ favorite verse is chapter 70 of the [Gnostic] Gospel of Thomas that says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you."  Regarding this declaration, she says, “[It] encourages individuals to believe God through their own divine ability instead of through Jesus.” But that's not what the earliest hearers of the gospel heard.  The Gospel of John, which predates Thomas (a point she concedes) as many as 60 years, says this: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me’” (Jn. 14:6).  No, there was neither competition nor confusion in the first century church over in whose name one could be saved: it was in Christ alone, and no book produced much later was going to change that doctrinal understanding among the faithful.

Second, as for Ehrman who was once an evangelical but now an avowed “happy agnostic,” he stands for a radical deconstruction of the New Testament (NT).  In the second century, it is true that there were three main groups that had different ideas about God and Christ, even producing their own sacred books.  To the Ebionites, the Messiah Jesus was all human but not divine, while the Jesus of the Gnostics was a disembodied Spirit.  And to the Marcionites, Jesus, sent by the true God, came to oppose the god of the Old Testament who created the evil material world. Ehrman’s agnostic (i.e., nothing can be known) argument is that everything was still up for grabs at the outset, meaning no one really knew which group, including the Orthodox (the evangelicals of that era), had the truth.  The Orthodox group beat out their competition only because they had more money, were better organized, and altered unfavorable passages in the NT to back their views.  

An appropriate response ought to begin with this question: Whose teachings and books were produced first?  The twenty-seven books of the NT were produced between 49-90 (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1997), and by the time other groups came on the scene, beginning in A.D. 140, the collective theological consciousness of the Church had long been established.  The Christians in the 2nd century, who were taught the doctrines of the apostles through their disciples (e.g., John->Polycarp->Irenaeus->Hippolytus), knew, for instance, that what the Gnostics taught (i.e., Jesus didn't come in the flesh) was substantively different from what John had taught much earlier.  1 John 4:2b-3a says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.  This is the spirit of the antichrist.”  No, the Bibles does not support agnosticism, for Scripture is a reliable testimony of a living and knowable God through Christ (Jn. 1:18).

Third, as for the Darwinian evolution that fuels the creative (or delusive) mind of the New Atheist Dawkins, the first one to speculate that “human life was originally like that of animals” was Democritus, a 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher.  To him, the world was devoid of purpose or prime mover (of Aristotle), which Dawkins, who entitled his 2006 book, "The God Delusion," would heartily agree.  Even so, Dawkins, who has explanations for everything regarding how a life-giving planet earth was formed out of billions of lifeless planets, doesn’t know how the one thing that clearly distinguishes humans from animals came about: consciousness.   After saying, “Maybe a few later gaps in the evolutionary story also need major infusion of luck,” Dawkins added, “The origin of consciousness might be another major gap whose bridging was of the same order of improbability” (p. 168).  Of course, that’s not the only thing that great luck was needed for evolution to succeed.  A Time magazine article on evolution (June 23, 2003) ends with this downer: “Clearly, being like us physically was not enough by itself to trigger the cultural complexity—innovation, creativity, symbolism and perhaps spoken language—that distinguishes us from all other animals.   So what triggered those changes? . . . Nobody really knows.”  

The Scripture, however, is not silent on this matter: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gn. 2:7).  Humans, not animals, are made in God’s image, and that not only endowed us with intrinsic worth, but it also gave us the ability to speak and be creative (Gn. 2:19-20).  

Following Christ is hard at all levels, including defending the Christian faith in the way prescribed to us by the apostle Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15a-16a).  More than ever before, there is a great need for a cogent and gentle defense of our faith.  And it is going to require a lot of serious studying and praying, and “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) to accomplish what Peter says in the next verse: “So that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:16).  That’s the challenge and responsibility.  Take it.