Impressive Rhetoric…or a Lifestyle of Love?

I don’t typically spend time looking at the remnants of a dead body before breakfast, but the circumstances this past weekend were decidedly unique.

Last Friday, I drove to Covenant for a weekend class on Gospel-Centered Parenting and spent the night alone in Edwards Hall – quite possibly the quietest hotel on planet Earth. The next morning, I was waiting in Covenant’s Student Center for my wife to join me for the Saturday portion of the class, and killing a few minutes by viewing the skeletal remains of a human being that had been unearthed in an excavation at the Abila of the Decapolis dig in Northern Jordan. There were ancient stone implements, pottery, and other artifacts available for viewing in the display case, too, but their impact was muted somewhat by the competing presence of a dead guy from a few thousand years ago.

I love it that one of the archaeologists who assisted in the efforts to bring that dead guy (and the other artifacts) to Missouri teaches at Covenant. Dr. David Chapman has been on faculty since 2000 and supplements his academic studies of the New Testament every now and then by winging off to Northern Jordan and participating in the Abila dig. Like most well-studied Christians, Chapman would affirm the truth voiced by the Apostle Paul that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our hope is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). Listening to Chapman teach New Testament History and Theology this past semester, I heard him sum it up even more succinctly, with words that more or less expressed the sentiment, “Folks, if the Bible is not firmly rooted in observable human history…well, we might as well all pack up and go home. We are wasting our time.”

I mention all of this as a follow-up of sorts to Dave Cover’s post on ESI last week in which he questioned the qualifications of British comedian Ricky Gervais to make any sort of assessment as to the existence or non-existence of God, let alone provide any sort of meaningful critique of the Christian faith. (See Dave’s article, “A Response to Ricky Gervais.”) Not only do I want to affirm Dave’s observation that we live in a time when horribly-unqualified individuals are regularly trotted out – in the mainstream media, no less – to offer up thoroughly prejudiced, ill-informed perspectives as “truth,” but I also wanted to call attention to a few of the most-notable things that are completely missing from just about every atheistic worldview, including that of Gervais.

At this point, however, you might want to pause and briefly consider the question, “Who do I think is more able to competently answer the questions we all have surrounding the historical Jesus, a person who undeniably lived and died in human history and who repeatedly claimed to be God…David Chapman, or Ricky Gervais?” Tuck that one away for now, and then take just a few seconds more to consider the level of costly honesty expressed by Chapman, who has dedicated his entire life to the study of the truthfulness of Scripture. If someone were ever able to provide irrefutable evidence that the Bible is not an accurate recounting of human history, well…he might very well be out of a job.

I’m not sure if Gervais has publicly staked the ongoing source of his livelihood on his theology. (Has he?)

The pastors at The Crossing like to quote C.S. Lewis…a lot. So much, in fact, that I think I may well have read all of Lewis’ books by default, just by virtue of having viewed the large display screens in our church auditorium week after week. But this is all well and good, as Lewis is arguably the single greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century.

With regard to Gervais and the rest of the “New Atheists,” however, one of Lewis’ lines of reasoning has been consistently invaluable to me as I seek to process the relentless drip, drip, drip of the broken atheist spigot, and that would be the argument from origin, meaning, morality and destiny. Lewis uses the analogy of ships going out on the open seas to make his point, but the original seafaring premise – an excellent word picture – has been finely-honed and much-used by Ravi Zacharias in his apologetics ministry. Without going into a lot of detail, the argument basically asserts that any and all worldviews (not just Christianity) must answer four foundational questions:

  1. “How did we get here?” (Origin)

  2. “What is the purpose of human life?” (Meaning)

  3. “What is good? What is bad?” (Morality)

  4. “What happens to a human being after he or she dies?” (Destiny)

Perhaps I’ve missed one of the heavier hitters from the atheist camp, but to my knowledge not one has been able to keep his ship from crashing on the rocky shore of sound reasoning such as this. Those who have tried have consistently offered up spectacularly-unsatisfying (and often-unbelievable) results. We may feel momentarily cowed by a brilliant display of intellectual wordplay, but even the simplest among us can offer up the stinging critique, “No, that just doesn’t sound right…you still haven’t answered the issue of….” And every time that happens, we should pause and quite rightly thank God for imprinting His Truth and the hope of eternity on our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). As believers, then, we should be able to push back – with confidence – on all four of these points, at least until the person decrying belief in God either deals effectively with these issues or (a more likely outcome) deflects the issue by labeling us “an idiot,” a “throwback” or otherwise shouting us down.

The Bible, of course, offers clear and unambiguous answers to all four of these very basic questions, which is precisely why most people don’t take the time to read it in its entirety (1 Corinthians 1:18) or respond thoughtfully to its assertions (1 Corinthians 1:20-25). It’s a lot easier, for example, to take potshots at the old-covenant intricacies of Old Testament law than it is to pack your bags, head over to Northern Jordan and start poking around in an archaeological dig. It’s far easier to read a book by one of the self-styled New Atheists and decide that they must be right than it is to learn ancient Hebrew and/or Greek and earnestly dig into the existing parchments, making a careful study of the monastic manuscript tradition along the way.

And let’s face it, it’s much more conducive to continuing in a lifelong pattern of our preferred sins to completely disregard what the Bible says and read anything else that comes our way with an eye toward “proving” what we have already decided ahead of time must be true. It’s convenient and expedient to have someone else invite us to continue living guilt-free with any/all of our God-dishonoring lifestyle choices.

While it seems to me that just about every atheistic worldview I have encountered fails on one or more of the four points listed above, the single most compelling failure is not based on any evidence from an archaeological dig, a brilliant academic paper or theological inquiry. While it is most definitely worth our while to engage in thoughtful dialogue and careful study, I would say that the most compelling failure I have seen in the atheistic worldview is in its utter lack of love for humanity, its complete disregard for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. “You are here by accident.” “Your life carries with it no ultimate meaning.” “The God you cry out to is a fairy tale.” I have heard all of these come from the mouth and pen of atheistic thinkers. Not much room for genuine love in any of that, is there?

When I began taking graduate-level classes at Covenant in the fall of 2009, I was prepared for the fact that I would be encountering some of the greatest minds in modern Christian scholarship. What I was not at all prepared for was the knockout, one-two-three combination-punch of brilliance, humility and geniuine love…not the fake, surface, “How are you doing?” kind, either. In my previous experience, the brightest minds almost always come packaged in arrogance or, if not outright arrogance, at least some level of dismissive disregard for their “lower-rung” counterparts, so it’s been “rather pleasantly shocking” for me to encounter individuals who grow more visibly humble and loving as their academic achievements pile up. I would venture to say that Chapman, along with the other Covenant faculty members I have encountered thus far, certainly qualifies as one of those rare individuals.

How much would you say Ricky Gervais genuinely loves you, me and our families? How much love does Richard Dawkins carry in his heart for humanity? Do their atheistic arguments flow from a genuine concern for your well-being and your ongoing ability to make your way in a dark, violent, dying world? The brilliance or (in Gervais’ case, certainly) wit of those decrying Christ hardly seems to be taking them deeper into a lifestyle of selfless love for others.

On the other hand, what would you imagine Dr. Chapman’s motivation to be as he spends his life and career pursuing the truths of the Bible sifting through the ancient dust of the Middle East? Why expend your life toward this effort, if not for authentic love of Christ, love for humanity and a desire to undergird and share the knowledge of the Truth of the gospel? His life’s work is designed to bring lasting hope to you, your children, and your children’s children. That sure seems loving, at least to me.

As we listen to someone actively engaged in deconstructing our belief in Christ as humanity’s only true hope, I would encourage all of us to look at the motivation of the person speaking. “Is this person seeking to show genuine love to me…and others?” My guess is that this question alone will narrow the field considerably.

Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

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