Is “God’s Not Dead” built on a faulty foundation? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Now it’s not a secret that I did like the movie “God’s Not Dead.” In fact, I wrote a positive review of it that can be found here. Does that mean the movie was perfect? Absolutely not! Does it mean it uses the arguments that I would use? Absolutely not! If I had been the one doing the writing, I would have used different approaches and arguments. For instance, I would not use science but I would use metaphysics and I would make the emphasis also be on the resurrection of Christ.
Still, as I said in my review, I am thankful that the conversation got started. Some people have critiqued the movie, but one critique that really points to a problem not in the movie but in some of the apologetics community is that of Joseph Mattera, the overseeing bishop of resurrection church in Brooklyn. His review can be found here.
Let’s go through and see what is said.
“The problem with this movie is that it bases the defense of Christianity on the false modern (Enlightenment) assumption that human reason is the final and highest arbiter of truth, thus setting it above God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures. Hence, this movie illustrates how the basic assumption of contemporary apologetics is faulty, because if our faith is upheld and proven by human reason, then unlearned Christian students attempting to use the arguments in this movie are also vulnerable in the future to an atheistic professor who could easily take advantage of their scientific and philosophical ignorance and poke holes through these basic arguments.”
Already, I hope many readers are realizing that there is a presuppositional bent here that is going to be more strongly seen as we go through this piece. So how does it start? It is the claim that human reason is the final arbiter of truth.
This is false. To begin with, what is meant by human reason? There is simply reasoning. Now someone might say “but God says that His thoughts are not ours nor are His ways our ways.” Yes. Do you know what that passage is about? It is about how God does forgive the wicked and love them, which is not the way that we do. It’s contrasting moral behavior. It’s not making a claim about knowledge.
I know a number of things that God knows. So do you. I know 2 + 2 = 4. So does God. I know that the world exists. So does God. I know that Jesus rose from the dead. So does God. I know that God exists. So does God. If God does not know these things, then we certainly cannot say that they are true for if they are not true in the mind of God, they are not true period. Truth seeking is ultimately just thinking God’s thoughts after Him.
Note also the irony here. The whole piece is in fact then saying “Your human reason cannot be the arbiter of truth and I am going to make a case that I want you to examine with your reasoning to see if it is true.” Now of course, there will be Scriptures presented, but how does one study the Scriptures? Does one study them reasonably or unreasonably? You cannot escape reason under any circumstances! Reason is not the enemy! Bad reasoning is the enemy!
Furthermore, we are not the arbiter of truth. If I reach the conclusion “God does not exist”, that does not mean that I have made it the case that God does not exist. It means I have made it the case that as far as I’m concerned, God does not exist. I do not determine truth, but I do determine what I will believe to be true.
Now could an atheistic professor poke holes through some philosophical and scientific arguments. Sure. Yet notice this. Any argument that is true cannot truly have a hole poked through it. A bad argument for that position could, but not a true argument. It could be of course that the person cannot defend the argument well or does not understand it, but the problem is not with the argument, but it is with the presenter and the critic of the argument.
What does that mean then? That we give up on arguments? Not at all! It means that we better study our arguments and that means that yes, we critique our own arguments. We who are apologists need to point out arguments that do not work. I don’t want to send someone out into the evangelism field with an argument that I think is faulty. That embarrasses the Gospel. I want to send them with an argument I think works.
“However, even more troubling is that even if a Christian wins a debate in apologetics, they really lost in the realm of ultimate truth, since they placed the foundation of the Bible upon modern empirical science, which means their presuppositions are actually the same as atheistic humanists. Christians who try to prove their faith by human reason have fallen into the false modern assumption that ultimate truth can be proven empirically by the five senses. Can you picture Jesus, the apostle Paul or the Old Testament prophets trying to bring conversions about by making a case for God based on contemporary human reason and science?”
Well actually, yes. Yes I can. Mattera’s inability to do so I think only shows a lack of imagination on his part. Jesus used parables and the events of the weather to talk about His generation and convey truths to them. He used truths they understood to explain truths they didn’t understand. Paul used the illustration of a seed in the ground to explain the resurrection. Rudimentary science of the day to be sure, but science nonetheless.
In fact, we can go further with Paul. Paul says the existence of God is made clear and how is that so? By the things that are seen. How do you get the knowledge of things that are seen? That’s done empirically, meaning with your five senses. One of the big mistakes of our age is assuming that empirical means scientific. All scientific thinking is empirical, but not all empirical thinking is scientific.
I also do think some ultimate truths can be known through the five senses. I think the existence of God can be known that way, such as through the five ways of Aquinas. Yet even Aquinas himself said that if it were not for special revelation, few would reach this knowledge and even then they would have it mixed with many errors. Practically the only one who got really close was Aristotle.
Yet Aquinas was an empiricist in the same tradition as Aristotle. He believed human reason could reach these truths, but he did not for a second discount the role of special revelation. His first section in the Summa is in fact on sacred science. Now Mattera is free to say he does not find the five ways convincing. He is also free to try to give a reason why and I am free to respond.
However, there are things that Aquinas would also agree could not be known through human reason and I would agree with him. Aquinas said human reason alone could not tell you that the universe had a beginning. While I might be iffy on that one, we would both agree that human reason could not tell you that God is a Trinity or that Jesus died for you. I may look historically and know Jesus died on the cross. History alone cannot tell me He died on that cross for my sins. I need God to say that to me.
It is part of Mattera’s mistaken dichotomy to think all knowledge of God comes through human reason or it comes through special revelation. I think the case of Paul in Romans 1 and 2 clearly rule out the latter position. Some knowledge comes through both places.
As for our presuppositions, my presupposition is that there is a world outside of my mind that exists and that human reason is generally reliable. If you doubt any of these, there is no other place to go for escape. You can never establish the material world exists if you start with being doubtful that it does. You can try to claim special revelation to say that it does, but why choose one revelation over another? If you deny reason right at the start, then you have no means by which to examine any case whatsoever. These must be granted or there can be no discussion. These are the same truths that are made clear to an atheistic thinker as much as a theist thinker.
“The innate and creational evidence for God is so great that the Bible never even attempts to prove His existence but starts the Scriptures by saying “In the beginning, God …” Psalm 14 says that the fool has said in his heart there is no God. Romans 1:21 teaches us that all professed unbelievers are really secret believers. The prophets of the Old Testament, along with the New Testament apostles, were able to spread faith due to the incredible power they had with God, due to earnestly seeking His face and speaking to people with prophetic power and conviction (1 Thess. 1:4-5). When Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Acts 17, he didn’t bother debating with his audience on their own philosophical grounds but assumed the biblical worldview, preached the risen Christ, and disparaged their prevailing polytheistic assumptions. Even when he quoted their poets, he quoted them in the context of the vortex of the biblical story without subsuming the biblical story to Greek philosophy!”
Much of this is true, but what if Paul had encountered a Richard Dawkins in his day. Are we to assume he would have just got out the Bible and preached to him from it? I suspect Paul would do what he did at Mars Hill. He would speak the language of Dawkins. Paul in speaking at the Areopagus never claims his audience is in denial. He instead makes a case based on evidence that they could see (Empirical) and leaves it to them to decide. (Human reason.)
Yes. The Bible never makes an argument for God’s existence, but technically, it never makes an argument for the resurrection, which is the central doctrine of Christianity. The Gospels are written to record that which was already known about Jesus for the church to have. They were meant to provide further certainty and not new information. 1 Cor. 15 starts off with the resurrection not to convince the Corinthians who already believed Jesus was risen, but rather to start off with the common ground in authorities that were trusted.
Nowhere in Paul do we find that people are suppressing the truth about the resurrection of Christ. That is not part of common knowledge and it would be bizarre to say the ancient Amalekites were suppressing the truth that Christ would rise from the dead.
“Furthermore, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:21 that the world through its own wisdom cannot know God. When we, as Christians, try to borrow from modernity and science to prove our faith, we actually lose the ultimate debate even if we win the temporary debate! At the end of the day, apologetics and science are OK as long as they are limited in their scope and their purpose is to understand the language of Babylon and inform our bridge-building conversations with humanists and atheists.”
Mattera unfortunately is unaware that Paul is using rhetoric very well in this passage to counter the claims of his opponents. What where those claims? They were the claims that a true Messiah would not be crucified and a true king would not be crucified. This is foolishness, but Paul says God uses what is foolish to instead shame the world and says Jesus is the Wisdom of God. (Which is quite a bit more since Jesus would be seen in Paul’s theology as the figure in Proverbs 8.)
Note also that I do not see the text as saying the world through its wisdom cannot know God but rather does not know God. It is not claiming knowledge of the existence of God can be known, but knowledge of the plan of God. With this, there would be no disagreement. If all you had was reason, you would not know God’s plan. That requires special revelation. Mattera is mistakenly thinking this passage is talking about the existence of God.
It’s nice to know that Mattera says apologetics and science are okay, but only as bridge builders. Now in part, I would say science cannot by itself get to the ultimate truth about God, because God is a metaphysical claim and not a physical one. Science can provide information, but the final gap is bridged by metaphysics. Apologetics can help get you there and that would be philosophical apologetics in this case. Yet keep in mind with the resurrection, apologetics is in fact defending what it is that God has already revealed. No historical apologist would say that by history alone, you could know the plan of God. You would need information from God’s side as well.
“If our faith rests upon ungodly Enlightenment presuppositions, we could be robbed of our prophetic power and could end up losing our faith since we are framing our beliefs on human reason, which assumes that logic has more weight than divine revelation. This also perpetuates human autonomy, which is the antithesis of both our faith and the biblical worldview.”
It presupposes nothing of the sort. With my metaphysical backing, I realize that my very existing lies in the hands of God. I cannot exist apart from Him. Without Him, I am nothing. In saying this, I am not saying logic has more weight than divine revelation. I am saying that divine revelation is logical and that if we use logic properly, we can understand it better. Note that logic by itself cannot get you truth. Logic can point out what is false, but it does not determine what is true. You need knowledge from the senses for logic to act on.
Mattera also says we could be in danger of losing our faith. If we do things wrongly, yes. If we also assume a presuppositional stance, we could be in just as much danger. Why not be a presuppositional Mormon? Why not be a presuppositional Muslim? Both groups would point to their Scriptures and could use analogous arguments.
“Lest anyone think I am promoting a form of fideism (faith without reason), I believe Christianity has a worldview that is the most logical and rational of all other worldviews. (Even an atheist has to assume theism when attempting to prove atheism since they have to borrow from the Christian worldview to function and even to debate, which is why some atheists admit they are “cultural Christians.”) One of the greatest proofs of the Bible is the impossibility of the contrary—that is to say, biblical Christianity makes the most sense in this world because it comports the closest to reality.”
And as anyone in the field knows, impossibility of the contrary is a code term that indicates a presuppositional approach. The problem is how many contraries are there? There is a potentially infinite number. He also says Christianity makes more sense because it comports the closest to reality. To this, I agree, but why should the atheist? The atheist obviously holds his view because he thinks it comports closer to reality. Doesn’t everyone? Who holds a worldview and would say “Yes. I am a Christian, but I do think the Koran has a better explanation of reality.” That would be bizarre.
But the question is, why should the atheist think this? The impossibility of the contrary? The atheist sees several several contraries and all of them have religion in common so hey, why not just chuck religion and go and be an atheist?
Furthermore, how does Mattera know this? He knows it by looking at reality and comparing it to the Bible, which is using reason and an empirical approach. How does he know his Bible is accurate? Using reason and textual criticism. How does he answer the objections the Bible is inaccurate? Using reason and historical criticism. In the end, I would say that Mattera actually uses my approach far more than he realizes.
Do I also agree the atheist has to borrow from the Christian worldview? Absolutely. Do I think that they do so knowingly? That would be nonsense. Contrary to what might be though, presuppositions do play a part in thinking. We must always watch ours. The problem with the presuppositional approach is it makes this central. Presuppositions are changed by evidence, which is why I take a more evidence-based approach.
“In spite of this, at the end of the day, all of our logic is circular since human reasoning is finite and subjective. (Only God is absolutely objective.) Thus, no one can prove or disprove the existence of God; the best a Christian can do is show probabilities. (God cannot be proved empirically. However the arguments for design and the supernatural make Christianity’s teachings the most likely to be true of all competing religions and humanistic beliefs.)”
And with this, Mattera shoots himself in the foot big time. If all our logic is circular, then his whole argument is circular and why should I care about it? Of course, this is also presuppositionalism at work. I do not at all hold that logic is circular. You are not using logic to prove logic. You are starting with logic because that is where we all must start.
And by the way, I do not think all a Christian can do is show probabilities. The five ways of Aquinas, for instance, are deductive arguments that if the premises are followed through will end in certainty. Historically, the arguments are probable, but if Christianity is true, the best research will end with Christian cases being far more likely.
“At the end of the day, if a person can be talked into becoming a Christian by clever logic-based apologetics, then someone else (e.g., an atheist) with more knowledge and skill in logic could come along and talk the new Christian out of their faith. This is why, according to John 3:3-5 and John 6:44, all humans need a personal/experiential encounter with the risen Lord Jesus in order to be truly converted!”
Yes. That is a danger. What is the solution? To abandon logical arguments? No. The solution is the Scriptural command to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. The solution is serious discipleship. If Christianity is true, a true look at evidence will support that. If someone reasons me out of it because it is false, I owe them my thanks and gratitude.
Ultimately also, Mattera’s position rests on something I cannot provide for myself. I cannot make Jesus act in an encounter with me. I cannot make myself have a grand experience with Jesus. I can however reason to the conclusion. I can assure Mattera there was a day and time I did confess to Christ my need for forgiveness and ask Him to be my savior. My certainty of that encounter however was greatly enriched by my study of philosophy and history. Could someone have talked me out of it in that time? Perhaps, and I can show him many ex-Christians who have been talked out of it. (And I consider it a cop-out that all of those Christians were conveniently never Christian to begin with. By that standard, I don’t think any of us could know we’re Christians today.)
I conclude that the problem with Mattera lies in his approach that is really contrary to Scripture and would be fine at convincing people who agree with him, but will not work outside of that. I find that presuppositionalism too often spends more time defending itself than Christianity. I certainly hope one day Mattera realizes this and goes for a more classical approach that has served the church well for centuries.