Recently I’ve spent a good amount of time working through arguments for God’s existence and attributes from a philosophical perspective. In January I started a class on contemporary atheism where we studied atheist arguments against God. I’ve always struggled with how to respond to outright atheism. The caricatures of the Christian God and faith found in memes on Facebook and in books like Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion have always seemed incorrect and inaccurate to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what was wrong, which limited my ability to respond.
I wanted to help those searching for answers about ultimate questions, such as whether there is a God and if so what he is like, but in my interactions I’d found that to be very difficult because we had an insurmountable hurdle between us in their rejecting the reliability of the Bible. Now I love reliability of the Bible discussions. I’m an archaeology geek and Biblical archaeology and the reliability of the Bible was the first area of study that drew me to apologetics. Yet when you only have a short amount of time and you’re trying to help someone see that there are good reasons to believe there is a God and that we have a good idea of the general nature of that God, spending most of your time trying to convince the individual that the Bible is reliable, so that you can begin to unpack the Biblical view of God, can quickly lose the attention and interest of your conversation partner. So I decided to explore another way.
During me contemporary atheism class, one of the things that became abundantly clear, as I read arguments for the impossibility of God, was that there were nuances to the definitions used of the attributes of God that were inaccurate. For example, one article hinged its argument on omnipresence. The author believed omnipresence was incompatible with the ability to think, because he had a faulty definition of omnipresence. His definition of omnipresence made God literally equivalent with all things, so self to God is the chair you are sitting on and the computer/phone you are reading this on and the floor you are standing on and all other things that exist, all at the same time. He defined omnipresence as God is all things rather than God is present to all things. There is more to the nuances of how these definitions are derived but suffice it to say, he was making an argument against God yet defining God’s attributes in a way that the Bible doesn’t define God’s attributes. It would be like someone making an argument that I (Kristen) don’t exist by arguing that the Kristin from the tv show Last Man Standing doesn’t exist. Even if the argument succeeds in proving that Kristin from the tv show doesn’t exist, that bears no weight on whether I exist, because I’m a different person, defined by a different collection of attributes. The argument was aimed at the wrong collection of attributes, so just because we share the same name doesn’t mean the argument applies to both. The argument has to be directed at the right collection of attributes while being faithful to the true definitions of those attributes.
Realizing that a significant number of the arguments for the impossibility of God hinge on inaccurate definitions of God’s attributes was enlightening to me. I’ve studied Systematic Theology (the study of the various doctrines of God and the Christian faith) quite a bit in my education but I’d always seen it as something only applicable to the church and future pastors. I’d seen it as prep work for those going into ministry so that we knew these things but the apologetic implications had been lost on me. I’ve never attended a church that taught Systematic Theology. I can’t recall a single sermon I’ve listened to that focused on clarifying that attributes of God and providing a collective picture of God from Scripture. The buzz words have been used, God is omnipresent or God knows all things, but I can’t recall a single sermon where the focus was explaining what that actually means.
This made me wonder, is the difficulty in defending the Christian faith against atheist arguments in some degree the result of the church not clarifying in detail what the Bible actually teaches about all the known attributes of God? What if I did a study of the impact of teaching about the existence and attributes of God? Would people be interested in learning arguments for the existence and attributes of God? Would it make any difference? I decided to give it a shot, so back in February I selected a book, Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God and started a Meet-Up group. I’m not going to lie, starting a Meet-Up group for this endeavor terrified me. When you teach at a church you have a pretty good chance that the majority, if not all, of the people in attendance will agree with you, because it’s a church so you’re not really teaching anything revolutionary to a church audience. However, there is no limit to the variety of backgrounds that could appear from a Meet-Up advertised group. Nevertheless, I persuaded a couple of my friends to join me so I wouldn’t feel outnumbered if only non-believers showed up and I jumped in.
We spent about a month on the first chapter of Charnock’s book. It was written in the 17th century so the language is a bit challenging. It was a fascinating read as the book is a collection of sermons that Stephen Charnock preached from the pulpit to average Christians, yet the depth was so far beyond what I’ve ever experienced in church. I was enthralled by the material and that this was delivered as a Sunday message, but there were challenges from the group. The language was awkward for many. The explanations were long and detailed which was difficult for those not used to reading philosophical arguments. But the greatest complaint was from individuals that did not view the Bible as reliable. Because this was a collection of sermons Charnock started with Scripture and intermixed philosophy, so the approach was awkward to someone who doesn’t trust the Bible. Those individuals heard that we know about God’s existence and attributes from the Bible and we’re making our philosophy fit our preconceived notions.
This was an interesting revelation, so presenting the Biblical explanations side by side with the philosophical ones was not enough to engage doubters of the Bible. The order the arguments were presented also made a difference. In order to solve some of the challenges I selected another book, Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, God/Creation. This time, instead of going straight from the book I tailored the format of our group. We began the discussion of each attribute of God with a definition of the attribute and spent the majority of our time on the philosophical arguments for that attribute. Once everyone could see what that attribute really means and how it is a necessary result of a previous attribute we’d covered, then we pulled in the Bible and discussed how the Biblical God has that attribute.
I was really amazed by the change in engagement. My friends who were Christians yet who’d been hesitant to speak up became bolder and more involved. What was even more amazing was that the change was happening regardless of religious background. The individuals who’d made it clear they were not Christians and that had previously been resistant became more open. They asked questions, were intrigued by the material, and expressed interest in reflecting on what we had discussed more when they got home. They’d come back the next week with questions they’d thought of over the week. When we’d discuss a new attribute they started defending and arguing for the new attribute with other individuals from the group, trying to show how it logically follows from some previous attribute we’d already covered. By the end of our series non-believers were actually arguing for God’s attributes for me.
This whole experience has been a pretty interesting turn of events. It’s taught me a lot about the field of apologetics.
- There are more people interested in diving into deep studies about God than one might think. As the church we often set the bar low. We assume people aren’t willing to go as deep as those of us who have gone to school for this are willing to go, but I’ve realized that’s not true. People will go as deep as you take them, but how deep they are willing to go also depends on you as the leader, which leads to the next lesson I learned.
- As a leader you have to be sensitive to the pulse of your group. If the people in your group aren’t understanding the material, don’t assume it is because they can’t. It’s our job as leaders and teachers to break complex ideas up into digestible chunks. If it’s not clicking, listen to the challenges presented by the attendees and try a different approach, a different book, a different analogy. Keep listening and keep trying different things until you find what brings clarity and understanding.
- Biblical concepts are engaging to non-Christians too. Often times we tailor our approach to Christians without even thinking about whether we are doing that or not. The reality is that the same material can be presented in a way that is accessible and digestible by non-Christians simply by changing our approach or the order of our material. You can still talk about the Bible. I’ve not met a non-Christian who vehemently shuns Biblical references. However, since they don’t see the Bible as reliable, start with what they already believe is reliable. Once you’ve established your point through a lens they can already see through, showing the Bible also brings that same information or that the Bible illuminates that information in greater details will actually help build a non-Christian’s confidence in the Bible.
- Not everyone is going to buy-in. We had quite a few people come through our group. Many non-Christians understood the arguments for God’s existence and attributes. They would even argue for God’s attributes for me at times, but some of those same people left our group unconvinced of the Christian God. Through the course of our discussions I realized they had preconceived ideas about what God had to be like that they were not willing to give up, even when they were logically convinced that conflicting ideas were true. For those individuals, their personal preferences and experiences outweighed reason and surprisingly they were willing to acknowledge that. Because the material had been presented in a way that did not allow them to reject it simply because it was from the Bible, they were faced with the reality that their beliefs are not based on reason. Some of them still chose to maintain their old beliefs but they were no longer able to do so and honestly say that it was for rational reasons.
- And finally, give yourself a break! If you’re anything like me, you put too much pressure on yourself when having these discussions. About 2 months into our study I was exhausted and would dread going to our meetings not because they weren’t fruitful. They were very fruitful. Each week I’d leave our group feeling refreshed and with a renewed sense of purpose from God, but by the time the next class rolled around I was in a tailspin. I was putting too much pressure on myself. I had set my expectations of myself beyond God’s expectations. God had called me to create a group and lead those who came through the material for the week. He didn’t expect me to convert people. He didn’t expect me to erase all their doubts, questions, and objections in every area of religious life. He called me to do a specific thing, share information about Him in a way that was accessible to anyone who came. . .Period. The outcome in the lives of the individuals was His responsibility, not mine. So make sure to set realistic expectations for yourself. Do what God has called you to do and leave the rest in His hands. Once I started focusing on that, I began to look forward to our classes in a way I hadn’t previously been able to. Give yourself a break and let God be God!