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Podcast: Why Apologetics Is Easier Than You Think (Neil Shenvi)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Apologetics Is for All Christians

In today's episode, Neil Shenvi talks about how every Christian can do apologetics and why we must not stop advocating for the truthfulness of Christianity—even in our post-truth age.

Why Believe?

Neil Shenvi

Why Believe? engages some of the best contemporary arguments against belief, presenting compelling evidence for the truth of Christianity and calling readers to entrust their lives to Christ.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:04 - Do We Even Need Traditional Apologetics?

Matt Tully
Neil, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Neil Shenvi
Thanks, Matt. It’s good to be here.

Matt Tully
Today we’re going to talk about apologetics. For some people, it’s an energizing, exciting topic. For other people, it’s maybe an intimidating and fear-inducing kind of issue. I want to get into some of those dynamics as we go on, but I wanted to start with something that you say early in your book. You write, “When discussion wanders into the area of religion, otherwise calm and sensible people seem to lose their ability to think rationally, or to use lowercase letters.” I just found that to be such a perfect summary of the way that discussions about God so often go in our culture today. I think anyone who has talked about God with non-believers either around a dinner table—maybe at a holiday—or on Twitter or on Facebook, they’re going to resonate with what you just said there. My first question is something that maybe we sometimes hear in our culture today, even from ChristiaNeil Shenvi Is traditional apologetics actually helpful today? Should Christians really be trying to engage in apologetics like that, or should we really just focus on loving and serving other people and being good, quiet witnesses in our own personal lives?

Neil Shenvi
I think you often hear that quote falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi (I think): “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I’ve heard many pastors say, No, you have to use words because the gospel is a message. It’s information. It’s not solely information, but there’s an informational component. No matter how kindly you live, no matter how charitable you are, that won’t convey the message that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. There are lots of very kind, amicable, friendly, generous Mormons and Buddhists and Atheists. That doesn’t tell you whether their beliefs are true or false. We have to be prepared to defend our beliefs rationally and intellectually and say, They’re not just good for me; they’re actually true for everyone. And that’s threatening, obviously, but it’s the fact.

Matt Tully
I want to get into those concepts of truth that often seem questioned in our culture today, and maybe even the question doesn’t even always compute. But before we get into that, I want to get back to that issue of is apologetics actually necessary and helpful more generally. In the book you talk about your own journey to Christ and recount how as a college student there was a time when you were walking through the college union or something and there was a Christian group that had set up a table with some books on it—free books they were giving away. They had a Bible there, which you ignored, but they had two books by C. S. Lewis and you picked them up and you read them. One was Mere Christianity and one was The Screwtape Letters. You made an interesting comment. You said that although you read both books, it was The Screwtape Letters that really grabbed your attention and arrested you, not the traditional apologetic book that Lewis wrote that he’s so famous for—Mere Christianity. Looking back now, why do you think it wasn't the apologetics book that first arrested your attention and even your heart?

Neil Shenvi
I think it’s because The Screwtape Letters speaks to very existential questions. In other words, What does it mean to be human, to be dealing with a moral law? What does it mean to deal with guilt and shame and all the things that we struggle with as human beings? When people hear that apologetics has to be about truth and facts and evidence, then they often are turned off because they say it doesn’t speak to the emotional side of life or the relational side of life. That’s a valid point, and that’s why in the rest of my book I try to also connect the intellectual arguments to a response. How should that make us behave? How should that make us rejoice? How should that make us worship? I think The Screwtape Letters is an example of how when you address those deep questions from a Christian perspective, it’s not the same as giving evidence that Christianity is true, but it shows that Christianity is true nonetheless. It’s resonating with our experiences. We say, Oh, that’s why I feel that way. Those are the reasons why I have the temptations I do. The reason that does resonate with our experiences is because Christianity is objectively true. I think Chesterton said that if you find a key that fits the lock of the human heart, maybe that key was made by the lock-maker. In the same way, when Christians are saying what’s true and what people recognize as true, that gives credibility to the Christian message.

Matt Tully
When I think of the term apologetics, I would define it as making the case for Christianity, for belief in God and the gospel and all that that entails. Are the arguments ever existential in nature as well, where you’re not necessarily trying to prove a truth claim per se, but you’re making a different kind of argument that does appeal more to our feelings or to aesthetic kinds of issues? Is that a part of apologetics as well?

Neil Shenvi
I would say that existential arguments are making truth claims. For example, if I made an argument and the premise was that you should feel revolted by ice cream, and that feeling of being revolted by ice cream is why Christianity is true. You would say, That makes no sense. I love ice cream, and it’s a good thing, and everybody does. That’s actually a fair point. If Christianity speaks to a reality that’s not real, then you have reason to doubt it. On the other hand and conversely, if Christianity can explain things like your moral emotions, your longing, the things that you feel deep in your heart, that’s evidence that Christianity is true. Again, be careful because there can be a placebo effect. Our hearts are wicked and deceitful. Sometimes we can have felt needs that are not real needs. We can’t always trust our feelings or emotions. If Christianity is true, we have to believe that at our deepest level God is speaking deep truths in our heart. Whether it’s a longing for eternity, a longing for truth, a recognition of good and evil, feelings of guilt and shame—the Christian worldview addresses all those things and, therefore, if we talk about those feelings and those experiences, that gives the Christian worldview credibility.

07:52 - A Shift into Apologetics

Matt Tully
How did you first get into doing apologetics? You became a Christian, and then you took that step at some point in your life to actually look to engage with unbelievers and convince them through evidence and argumentation of the truth of what we say we believe. How did you make that shift?

Neil Shenvi
I became a Christian in graduate school, and I never really got deeply into apologetics at first with my colleagues. I’d read a few books—The Case for Christ and Mere Christianity—so I kinda had a sense that this was a thing that Christians did. And, of course, I was a PhD student at UC Berkeley, so I was surrounded by very, very brilliant colleagues and other students. I remember that I got into apologetics initially because I was invited by a friend from high school to an event. He emailed me and said, You’ve got to come onto my friend’s blog and debate him. He’s an atheist. He went to Yale, he became an atheist, and you have to debate him. He’ll show you that Christianity is not true.

Matt Tully
So this friend who was inviting you to do this, he wasn’t a Christian and was trying to convince you—

Neil Shenvi
Yes, he was now an atheist. They had both grown up in a strange Christian sect, and then they both were atheists. He said, Come onto my Yale-educated friend’s blog and he’ll talk you out of all this religion stuff. I went on this guy’s blog, and what I found out quickly is that we were both completely unprepared to have this discussion. What we did do, which I thought was very helpful and I’ve followed this route ever since, is he recommended a book that I read, and I recommended a book that he should read. The book he recommended was Robert Price’s book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Robert Price is one of the two Jesus mythicists with PhDs in the world. He believes Jesus was a mythical figure.

Matt Tully
Not just a historical person who was kind of blown out of proportion.

Neil Shenvi
He believes he was actually purely fictional. I read this book, and I remember my wife and I just laughing because the arguments were so insane. But it exposed me to the world of the New Atheist movements—this was in 2003 or 2004. New Atheism was a big deal—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett. It exposed me to that world, and when I read that book I thought, Wow! His arguments are actually not very good. I expected to be kind of blown away because I wasn’t familiar with it, but I read it and realized that Christianity is actually defensible. Around that same time a group of Christian students at UC Berkeley created a club that was dedicated to bringing Christians and atheists together to talk about religion. I went to some of their meetings, and I gave a talk to the atheist group about quantum mechanics. I remember sitting down with the president of the Berkley atheist society—it was called SANE: students for a non-religious ethos. I sat with him—I think we were having coffee somewhere—and he said something like, I would believe in God if I could just find one example of a clear, undisputed miracle. Just one. Only one. That’s all it would take and I would believe in God. I thought for a minutes and said, Wait a minute. You want an example of the laws of physics totally breaking down and we can’t explain it by any natural means? He said, Yeah, just one. I said, What about the Big Bang—the beginning of the universe? It’s described as a point in which the laws of physics break down. We don’t know where it came from or what caused it—nothing. He sits there, thinks to himself, and he goes, Huh. I had not read apologetics formally, but off the top of my head I wondered, Is this easy? Obviously, there are lots of arguments there and philosophers go back and forth, but I was shocked by how some of these natural questions were not being answered and communicated to the atheist community. Again, they might still argue and say there are ways around that, but I just thought, I should spend more time studying these issues, and then communicate these simple answers to my colleagues. That’s how I got into the field.

Matt Tully
I think one of the assumptions that Christians can have, especially if we haven’t done much apologetics ourselves and haven’t had those conversations directly, is that anyone who isn’t a Christian, and certainly someone who would claim to be an atheist or even an agnostic, that they’ve heard all of the arguments before, they’ve thought through them carefully, and they’re ready with their counter arguments. They’re ready to debunk the things that we think we believe. What has been your experience? Let’s just stick with the atheists you’ve interacted with. Have they been surprisingly open to discussions about this stuff? Do they like talking about these things with you and with other Christians? Or, do you find that there’s hostility there?

Neil Shenvi
I think it depends. I know that my experience as a scientist in my lab, for example, we wouldn’t talk about religion frequently, but when we did, people were open. They were not antagonistic. They did often challenge me and push back, but again, in my experience they often weren’t prepared to think about these arguments. They hadn’t thought about them before. They had sort of taken for granted that everyone who is a scientist is an atheist. When you ask these questions, they were surprised that you are asking questions that they hadn’t really considered, or raising points that they hadn’t really considered. I remember a woman in my lab asked me some “gotcha” question about the problem of evil. I forget my answer, but she kind of pauses and says, Well, of course you have an answer for that. I thought, Why did you ask the question if you didn’t want an answer? Again, it drove home the point that most people—Christian and non-Christian—are not prepared to have these conversations. Ask the average Christian why they believe Christianity is true. They don’t really know. They couldn’t give you a five-minute answer. They couldn’t go into the details of the cosmological argument, the argument for fine tuning, or the moral argument. They might be able to point you to the Bible and to Jesus and maybe the trilemma, like Lewis’s argument about Jesus claiming to be God, but other than that they haven’t studied these issues very much, and neither have most atheists. Well, that’s good. We can learn together if we need to and walk them through a conversation. People like relationality, so there you go. I invite them to read a book that you enjoy, and then you can offer to read a book that they enjoy, and then talk about them.

14:44 - Should All Christians Study Apologetics?

Matt Tully
Taking a step back there, you said that if you were to guess, most Christians haven’t thought about some of these issues and wouldn’t have ready answers to some of these questions, or certainly wouldn’t be able to articulate some of these arguments in support of faith in God. Is that a problem—in your mind—even for a Christian who maybe isn’t going to ever be out there on a stage debating someone, or online debating someone? Should Christians know some of these things, whether or not they would ever use them in a “apologetic context”?

Neil Shenvi
First, and this is just an obvious answer, but every Christian should be biblically literate. I don’t want to exaggerate, but 80–90% of your apologetics problems will be greatly simplified if you have a firm theological grounding.

Matt Tully
Why do you say that?

Neil Shenvi
Questions like the problem of evil—If God exists, why does evil exist?—that’s so-called apologetics, but how could you not have considered that as a Christian? There are whole books of the Bible dedicated to that question. I don’t understand how you could read the Bible and books like Job or Revelation and not wrestle with question, Why do bad things happen when God is so good? How do you avoid thinking about that your entire Christian life? If Christians had simply a good theological grounding and biblical literacy, they could answer many of these questions just from their intuitive theological stance. That’s one thing that I think we could all benefit from is simply good biblical theology. In terms of these more intellectual arguments about the origin of the universe or the moral argument, I do think Christians should be able to give a reason for the hope that we have in us. First Peter 3:15–16 says: “Be prepared to give a reasoned defense for anyone who asks about the hope that is in you.” That’s a command. If someone asks why you’re a Christian, you should not just fumble and have no answer. You should have some answer for them. We don’t all have to be experts in philosophy, ancient history, or textual criticism; but we all have to be able to explain why we are Christians, why it’s a rational belief, why it makes sense, and why it’s a true belief. That’s for all of us.

17:11 - Adventures in Apologetics

Matt Tully
I wonder if you could share two things: What has been your best experience in doing apologetics? What’s a circumstance that you remember a time when you were sharing about your faith and answering objections that stands out as a really successful or encouraging thing (whatever that means)? And then, what would be an example of a really terrible experience that you had where maybe you dropped the ball in a big way, or you didn’t have an answer and you were just so stumped? I wonder if you could share two of those examples.

Neil Shenvi
I think one of the more interesting ones—and this is not exactly apologetics, but it sort of makes the point that apologetics is about more than just deductive logic. These days I mainly write and read and think about something called critical theory, so I talk a lot about race and racism injustice and how to think about those issues biblically. I prefer to do straight up apologetics and talk about Jesus and the Bible and the gospel, but I got a DM from a guy on Twitter who asked me questions about race and racism and stuff. He said, Oh, by the way, I am a Christian because of you. I was an atheist at a secular college that was really going off the rails in terms of how they were thinking about race and racism. I was conservative politically, so I was resisting those ideas but I didn’t know how. I listened to one of your talks and you explained these ideas, but you were a Christian and I didn’t really understand that. He kept reading my material and at one point he listened to a talk in which I was discussing racism and the history of slavery and lynching in the US, and during the talk I got really emotional. I started crying. That really shocked me and broke me because as an atheist, I couldn’t explain why racism was wrong. I knew it was, but I had no way to explain why it was wrong. To hear a Christian who both is passionate about addressing these issues biblically and truthfully but also abhors racism and loves his neighbor, that was perplexing to me. He became a Christian through that. I was just amazed. Apologetics is more than just this intellectual exercise that runs through arguments, premises, conclusions, and deductive logic. It can also speak to current events and thinking about those things biblically because when non-Christians see that a biblical framework answers all these questions. It explains and gives their life meaning but also addresses hot topics like race and gender and sexuality in a way that they recognize as true, and that lends credit to Christianity. For a negative experience, I’m trying to think of some. I do think there have been many times (probably more than I remember because I blocked them out) when I have felt like the discussion got away from me. I got too caught up in the abstract, philosophical debate. Not that I was mean, but I always try to bring the discussion back to the gospel. Whatever I’m talking about, I don’t want to leave it at, Well, if you accept premise one and premise two, then the conclusion logically follows. That shouldn’t be our end goal in those discussions. When I’ve had discussions when I felt like, Oh man, yes, maybe I gave a good reason for what I believe, but I didn’t bring it back to Jesus. That’s always the thing I remind myself that is always the goal. The goal is to always bring it back to the cross and the resurrection. That’s why we do this.

21:05 - Isn’t the Holy Spirit the Only One Who Can Save Someone?

Matt Tully
That relates to another question I had for you: How do you incorporate the belief that you have as a Christian (and that we call have as Christians) that unbelievers’ most fundamental problem is that their minds are darkened and they are dead in their sins, as the Bible tells us? There’s a sense in which they cannot believe and they cannot understand without the Holy Spirit regenerating their hearts and awakening them to the beauty and the truth of the gospel. How does that reality impact how you actually go about doing apologetics?

Neil Shenvi
It definitely should. I think theology has to, perhaps, precede apologetics. You should always start with a good theological grounding. My understanding of the Bible is that, yes, non-Christians are dead in sin, like I once was. Our minds are darkened before we come to Christ, so we can’t believe and we can’t understand the things of the Spirit. People will often say, See? That’s why apologetics is useless. You’ll never convince anyone. You can’t argue anyone into the kingdom. I say that’s fair; that’s true. But by the same reasoning you can’t preach anyone into the kingdom. You can’t love anyone into the kingdom. You can’t serve anyone into the kingdom. Those are all true according to our theology. What’s the answer, then? The answer is God uses means. God uses many means. There are many means through which God brings people into the kingdom, whether it’s apologetics, preaching, or showing people love. Whether or not we’re giving people a logical, deductive argument for Christianity, whether or not we’re preaching, expositing the Bible, or loving people in Jesus’s name, those are all means God uses to awaken faith in people’s hearts. It can never be divorced from the biblical truth, from the actual message, of Jesus dying for our sins and rising from the dead, but those are all ways in which we can communicate that truth credibly. I do think we should approach these arguments thinking that nothing is going to happen without the work of the Holy Spirit. No matter how persuasive I am, no matter how rational I am, no matter how winsome I am, nothing will bring their heart to life apart from the Holy Spirit’s work. The good thing is that takes the pressure off of us. We don’t have to say, Oh man, I didn’t do enough. I didn’t try hard enough. I wasn’t winsome enough. No, the goal is simply to say what’s true, and then to trust that God would bless the work that you’ve done.

23:46 - The Moral Argument

Matt Tully
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of apologetic arguments that you highlight in the book and walk your readers through. I just want to pick out two of them, and maybe start with one that you’ve already kind of mentioned a couple times—that argument from morality, from the relatively universal moral values and principles and intuitions that we have. You would say that those can serve as a proof of God’s existence. How so?

Neil Shenvi
The moral argument has been used for a long time. The formulation that I use is pretty standard today among popular apologists, but William Lane Craig has done a lot of work on it. It just basically says that if God does not exist, then objective moral facts don’t exist. There are no moral values. Objectively, there are no moral duties, there’s no good or evil, there’s no right or wrong—that’s if God doesn’t exist. But then, number two, objective moral facts do exist. There are things that are objectively right or wrong. Depending on what you believe or I believe or culture believes or everyone in the whole world believes, they’re just objectively true. Gravity is an objective physical fact. It just exists. It’s there. It doesn’t matter if we all reject gravity; it’s a fact. If God doesn’t exist, then there are no moral objective facts. But there are objective moral facts, so the logical conclusion is there must be a God. And a certain kind of God, not just a generic spirit that is outside of morality. It has to be a God that can explain why certain things are right and wrong and good and evil. C. S. Lewis does this extensively in his book Mere Christianity. The basic argument is the moral argument. What I do in the book is I go beyond Lewis’s presentation and I look at the ways in which modern atheists have avoided one or both of the premises. They might say, Well, no, we can have morality without God. Or they might say, No, actually there is no morality. There are two options for them. They can either deny the first or second premise. I go through each of their justifications for denying premise one or premise two, and I basically show that 1) they’re often inconsistent with how they live. They live as if there are objective moral facts, even if they claim there aren’t. Then, if they say that those facts aren’t grounded in a God—a supernatural creator—and that there’s something else that explains them, I show the problems philosophically with doing that. A common example would be something like how do you weight the good of the many vs. the good of the few? If something will benefit and make lots of people flourish but will cause a lot of pain to one person, what’s the trade off? How do you adjudicate those issues where you’re trying to balance people’s happinesses? That’s a problem for a lot of secular morality. It’s all very intellectual, but I really like the moral argument because it grabs you. It’s something you deal with daily. You have to decide every single day when you wake up, Will I live morally or immorally? Will I live a selfish life, or will I lay down my life and do what I know is right? That’s not this abstract question. It’s a daily thing we wrestle with as human beings. And what’s more, as Lewis points out, we daily fail to live up to our own standards. I think it’s one of the arguments that you can’t put aside and say, Oh, it’s this crazy, ethereal idea that I toy with occasionally. No, literally every moment and every decision you make is influenced by your view of morality.

Matt Tully
That’s the power of it for interacting with unbelievers is that there is this experiential reality to it that they know what it is to feel guilty about something. They know what it is to feel morally compelled to do something good and to stand up against evil. This makes me think of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, and his whole point in the book—he’s speaking from an evolutionary perspective—is that our moral intuitions (those gut moral reactions to things) are some of the big, almost universal, moral truths that we would feel. For example, killing a child would be wrong and horrible. He makes the case that those moral intuitions are often just so immediate, and then we follow up on those with these rationalizations that we create in our minds, almost unconsciously, to justify those intuitions. How would someone saying that we feel like these are universal moral truths but we see evidence that our morality—and our reasons for our morality—are often created after the fact? They would say it’s actually very conditional, based on who we’re around, the culture that we’re in, and all of that. What would you say to that?

Neil Shenvi
That’s a great book, by the way. Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, is an excellent book, and I would recommend that everyone just read it. It’s really fascinating. I discuss evolutionary objections to the moral argument in the chapter I wrote on this, and people use that both ways. They either say, Evolution explains why we can get morality without God. It’s all just been shaped by evolution. It points to the way that we’ve evolved. That’s what morality is; it’s our evolutionary intuition. Or they could say, Actually, that shows why morality is false because it’s just this illusion. Again, C. S. Lewis addressed these very claims in Mere Christianity. It’s not a new argument.

Matt Tully
It’s from one hundred years ago.

Neil Shenvi
And Darwin talked about the evolutionary origins of morality. I just say this: 1) you can’t show that morality is false. Even if it evolved, it doesn’t prove it’s false. In the same way, our grasp of mathematics, our grasp of science, our grasp of the law of gravity, that’s supposedly evolutionary. We can understand mathematics and science because we have these cognitive faculties that evolved. But does it prove, therefore, that the law of gravity is false? No. It’s still out there, we just perceive it. The fact that we grasp it through these cognitive faculties that supposedly evolved does not prove, therefore, that it is an illusion. That’s number one. You can’t show it evolved; therefore, it’s an illusion. Then I say okay, let’s take that approach. Some people say, That’s right. It is an illusion, and you’re admitting it’s an illusion. How do you explain that? Here’s the thing: you don’t live like it is. We have other tendencies and intuitions that we just all have as human beings. For example, human beings seem to be innately afraid of the dark, babies are scared of loud noises, we see faces in random objects—our brains are primed to recognize certain patterns. Let’s say we have all these natural tendencies, but let’s say one of those intuitive tendencies—the fear of the dark, for example—was impeding my happiness. It was making me miserable andI couldn’t go out at night and have fun. If I were aware, that fear of the dark is not real, it’s an illusion, and it’s been foisted upon you by your evolutionary history—if I knew that, as an adult I would work to erode that fear. I would go to therapy and I would do little exercises at home to train myself that fear of the dark is irrational. I would work to eradicate that fear. But here’s the thing: people that claim your moral intuition is purely an illusion, it’s been foisted upon you by evolution, you don’t need it, and it’s not real, they would be horrified if you sat down everyday and worked to eradicate your moral intuition. Imagine someone who had achieved the state of complete immorality where they had no more intuition at all. They had no more guilt or shame. They could do whatever they wanted to without fear or guilt, but they chose not to for self-interested reasons. That kind of person is still a monster. If they could murder innocent people for fun and enjoy it and not feel any shame, you wouldn’t want to be that person. But why? They’ve achieved what you have claim is the ideal, rational state.

Matt Tully
We have a name for those people in our culture.

Neil Shenvi
Yes, psychopaths.

32:03 - The Mathematical Argument

Matt Tully
They’re called psychopaths. What about another argument that you actually already alluded to a little bit. It’s very interesting. It’s an argument from mathematics: somehow math itself testifies to the truth of God’s existence. Unpack that for us.

Neil Shenvi
We live in a universe with a deeply mathematical structure. Talk to any physicist, or even a chemist or biologist, and they will recognize that math is the language of God. We can perceive that there is, objectively, a rational mathematical order to the universe. You can see this in a lot of the early founders of modern physics—Albert Einstein and Eugene Wigner—they recognized that there was this deep, underlying mathematical structure, and they looked for it. They expected to see that the equations governing physics were not just real but beautiful. It’s not the only test for a theory’s truth, but generally speaking as a scientist, we look for beauty in the equations that govern the universe. I ask the question in my book, Why is that the case? I read a lot of science fiction books, and one of my favorite authors is Brandon Sanderson, who is actually a Mormon. In his books, he loves delving into alternative realities where there’s an alternate laws of nature. They follow certain rules. He builds entire worlds and realities around these rules of basically magic. It looks like magic to us, but it follows rules. Even he has that understanding that the universe ought to be beautiful and have reasons behind it. If you think about it, that doesn’t really . . . why? Contrast Brandon Sanderson’s novels where there’s this deep backstory and these deep, underlying rules—even to his magic—contrast that with something like C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I love those books; I think they’re great. But there’s just no rhyme or reason. Just random things happen. The magic just happens. The same with Harry Potter. You read the Harry Potter books and sometimes you’re like, This is a plot device!

Matt Tully
She made it up to fit what she wanted to happen next.

Neil Shenvi
Exactly. But here’s the question: Why do we live in a universe that has this deep, underlying rationality and mathematical structure, and not in a universe that looks like it was created by J. K. Rowling—to fill some plot device, or that things just happen unaccountably, or there’s no explanation for them? Why? So, number one is we live in this universe with a deep, underlying mathematical structure. More than that, we can uniquely perceive that as human beings. Other animals—we're rational animals—don’t understand and they can’t see the structure that’s there. They might learn things in some sense. Birds can be taught to tie knots in twigs and build nests, but they don’t understand quantum mechanics. They don’t understand genetics. How come human beings uniquely can perceive that underlying structure? We have these two phenomena. And, again, Eugene Wigner actually wrote a paper on that subject, saying those are miracles. I’m not even sure if he was atheist or not, but he recognizes it’s extremely odd that we live in a mathematical universe and that, too, we can perceive that fact, unlike all these other intelligent animals. I’m arguing that that doesn’t make sense if you’re an atheist. Why would there be the structure and why would we be able to perceive it uniquely? But as a Christian, I can say it’s because God himself is a mind who created the universe, and he made us in his image to be able to uniquely perceive his handiwork in a way that other animals could not. That’s what it means to be in the image of God.

35:50 - The Best Argument against Belief in God

Matt Tully
I wonder if you could put on your atheist hat and give us what would be the best argument against belief in God that you’ve encountered. And then, putting your Christian apologetic hat back on, how would you then respond to that?

Neil Shenvi
I think the best argument against Christianity—people will often conflate the two. They’ll argue against Christianity and think they’re arguing against God. Obviously, for the Christian God that’s true. When I’m pointing people to Christianity, that’s fair. But they’ll often say things like, How can you believe that God exists if the universe is older than 6,000 years You can ask that question, but what you’re really asking is, How do you know the Bible is inerrant? How do you know the Bible doesn’t have errors in it? I can answer that question—I’m an inerrantist—but don’t confuse these objections about the Bible with objections about God existing, or even about Christianity. I think, again, I am an inerrantist, I think it’s an important doctrine; and yet, don’t confuse believing the Bible is inerrant with being a Christian and believing in Jesus. Even the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy said, No, there are Christians who are not inerrantist. I just want to distinguish between those two objections. The best argument against God’s existence, I would think, is the problem of divine hiddenness. If God really does love us and God is a good God, then why doesn’t he reveal himself? The problem of evil, I think, is also a big one, but I think actually, for reasons I go into in the book, it’s less problematic than the problem of why does God hide himself. But again, this is where I think good theology can help us explain and answer these questions. What I would say is that question assumes that if we had more evidence our problems would be solved. But the Bible says, No, your problem is not that you lack evidence; your evidence is that you hate God. Your problem is that you’re at enmity with God, you wish he didn’t exist, and, therefore, all the evidence in the world can’t remove that hatred. In other words, what if I say, I don’t believe in Lord Voldemort, the evil villain from Harry Potter. Give me more evidence. If someone gave me more evidence that Lord Voldemort existed, I would say, Great. But now I loathe this Voldemort who exists. I thought he was just a fictional character, but now I realize he’s real and I loathe him even more. In the same way, if our fundamental problem is that we do not like the fact that there’s a god—we want to be our own gods—then hiddenness is not a big problem because it just says, God has not given you all the evidence he could. He could give you more evidence, but that wouldn’t solve your problem. So, why blame God for not giving you things you don’t need? What you really need is a change of heart. Now you ask, Why can’t God change my heart? Ah! That’s where I introduce them to the gospel. God has given a way for your heart to be changed, but it’s not through the Kalam cosmological argument. It’s not through reasoning about these abstract ideas. It’s through the cross. God has made a way for us to have our hearts changed, and it’s through embracing what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Again, it’s a great transition from saying these intellectual problems we’ve been wrestling with for 150 pages, they’re ultimately solved not primarily in a better argument, but in the gospel. That’s what’s ultimately going to convince you that Christianity is not just true but worth embracing.

39:33 - Apologetic Arguments to Avoid

Matt Tully
Maybe a fun question to see what answers you come up with here for this: What are some apologetic arguments that Christians should not use? Maybe things that you’ve heard Christians say, or you’ve read Christians to promote, that you think, Do not use that with an unbeliever.

Neil Shenvi
Anything that relies on science that you don’t really understand, I would not use. It’s tricky because I’m not a cosmologist, but I talk about the argument from fine tuning in my book. That’s fair, but I am a theoretical chemist, so I can kind of grasp what these arguments are and I can read the primary literature myself. But I occasionally will see memes that talk about how some protein is in the shape of a cross. I’m like, Please don’t do that. Sometimes it’s like someone is appealing to you with magic: Look! It’s a picture, I saw it online, and it looks good and seems convincing! I would be very skeptical, especially because those are almost always not true, and that undermines your credibility with a non-Christian. Unfortunately, a lot of times non-scientists share with other non-scientists, so they never get called out for that. But when a scientist sees that and is like, That is not remotely true! Then they’re going to say, That’s just such a naive and silly belief. Again, they’re not just scoffing at you; they’re scoffing at a bad argument, which is valid. The same thing goes for all of these weird, numerological things in the Bible. Like, if you put the following Hebrew letters . . . there’s a whole Bible code thing that went on about ten or fifteen years ago. I never even read it, but it apparently was trying to show that the numbers in the Bible predict the future. This is almost like witchcraft or from a cult! The Bible is words! Read the words. Don’t try to find these hidden, secret, decoder ring messages in it. Just in general, what I try to do is don’t speak outside your area of expertise. I don’t mean PhD expertise, but I’m just saying if you haven’t read at least one or two or three books about some subject, don’t start spouting off about it like you’re an expert. Do a little bit of reading. I also recommend asking questions. Rather than telling people, Here’s what is true, why don’t you ask them, What do you believe is true? Or invite them to read a book with you and alongside of you. That often will prevent you from sticking your foot in your mouth and saying things that are just obviously false. You’ll be talking about a subject that you both have access to in the book.

42:15 - What If an Apologetic Conversation Makes Me Doubt My Faith?

Matt Tully
Maybe as a final question, Neil, I wonder if you could speak to the person who this would accurately describe them: If they were being honest with themselves, they would say that they feel very intimidated by the thought of doing apologetics, of having these explicitly apologetic conversations with unbelievers who they know are going to challenge them and have questions for them. It’s not necessarily just because they would be fearful of being judged or rejected by them as silly Christians, but they actually feel like they’re kind of scared to hear the questions themselves because they are not sure that their own faith would survive that kind of argumentation. What would you say to the person who would say that that’s them right now?

Neil Shenvi
One thing is there are two tasks of the apologist. One is to show non-Christians that the gospel is credible, that it’s intellectually sound and true. But the other task of the apologist (I’m getting this from philosopher Tim McGrew, by the way) is to equip Christians to be confident in their own beliefs. You see that in Luke 1:1–4. Luke himself says, I’m writing this whole gospel so that you can be certain of the things you’ve been taught. For people who are scared and say, I don’t want to talk to a skeptic because they might make me doubt, I say that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even Theophilus, Luke’s audience, had to be instructed in why he should be confident in these beliefs. In the same way, if you feel that way don’t sit on your hands and hide. Read these books. Read some books about apologetics, understand why Christians believe what they believe and why it’s true, so that you can be confident in what you believe. There’s no shame in that. One of the things I say in the book is that the best argument for Christianity—and I really mean this—is the gospel itself. Recognition that we’re sinners who need a Savior, that is unique to Christianity. If that’s your deepest experience—that you are a sinner who needs rescue, if you feel helpless and hopeless—and you know that in the core of your soul, then Christianity is the only option for you. There’s nothing else out there that says your problem has been solved once and for all, and you can trust that God will rescue you. That’s the best argument that Christianity is true because no other religion is out there for you. If I’m a man in a desert and I know I’m going to die without water and I see an oasis, the back of my mind may say, Maybe it’s a mirage. Well, who cares. Maybe it is, but maybe it’s not. There’s no other hope for me, so I’m going to walk in that direction no matter what. In the same way, if I know I need a rescuer, there’s only one; that’s Jesus. You might as well die at the foot of the cross than die elsewhere. And, of course, you’re not going to die. You’re going to live. That’s what I tell ChristiaNeil Shenvi be confident in that message, and I think that will give us a lot of confidence in addressing these issues.

Matt Tully
Neil, thank you so much for helping us to have a little bit more confidence today in this work of doing apologetics and understanding these things, and for ultimately pointing us to the beautiful gospel.

Neil Shenvi
Thanks, Matt.


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