This is the fifth and final installment of my series examining Christian apologist John Lennox’s reactions common objections to Christianity.
In the present entry I consider Lennox’s reactions to the ninth and tenth objections which he considers, namely that it is ridiculous to take the bible literally and the lack of evidence for the existence of a god in the first place.
The ninth prompt is given as follows:
9) Surely you don't take the Bible literally?
The article responds:
Some atheists (and a few Christians) have a very black and white idea of how to interpret the Bible. You either have to take it 'literally' or chuck it away, they think. That ignores the reality of language and how it reflects truth.
While the article aims its sights here on atheists, this is in fact more of an internal matter for Christianity. As the article rightly suggests, there is no end to the disagreement among Christians on what to take literally and what not to take literally in the bible. But this is not the atheist’s problem.
Conflicts within Christianity over literal vs. figurative meaning of biblical verses are nothing new, and today they have helped to divide Christians against each other further than their forebears. Take creationism for example. Was the earth, according to Christianity, created in a literal six-day period, as the “young-earth creationists” argue; or over much longer period, as the “old-earth creationists” insist? When Genesis says that its god created the earth in six days, do we interpret this literally or figuratively? Of course, Christians are not uniform in their answer to this question.
Many Christians of course interpret the Genesis creation myth literally, even going so far as to insist that the earth is only 6,000 or so years old. But Prof. Lennox himself apparently disagrees with this interpretation since he has engaged his figurative gears in interpreting his bible at this point. In a video featuring a clip from an interview with Lennox
, he demonstrates how he can interpret statements in the bible in a figurative manner while maintaining that he is in a sense still maintaining a literal stance.
p. 10: Nye says that the central idea of creationism is “…that the first book of The Bible’s assertion that Earth is only six or ten thousand years old (the exact number depends on the interpretation) is supported by scientific evidence.” Actually the book of Genesis makes no such assertion anywhere. That is a result of interpretation. Other interpretations say that the earth is as old as Bill Nye thinks it is. In fact, some interpretations would allow the earth to be much, much older than what Nye believes.
So the Christian “Scriptures” are so inarticulate as to allow its believers to claim that the earth is six thousand years old and that it is over, say, four billion years old, all at the same time. This is simply an embarrassing condition that, for Christendom proper, is utterly inescapable. Suppose a scientist performing aging tests on some artifact (qua artifact) concludes that the item in question is two hundred years old, and another scientist also performing aging tests on the same item concludes that it is two hundred million years old. This would indeed be perplexing to say the least! Reliable science would not produce such disparate and incompatible results. But the Christian bible, given the enormously wide latitude of interpretations, can play host to an enormously wide assortment of positions. The contents of such a source are not themselves amenable to scientific reliability, given their lack of objective reference as well as their susceptibility to such dissimilar and mutually irreconcilable interpretations.
The article quotes Prof. Lennox:
"Jesus said 'I'm the door'," said Prof Lennox. "Is Jesus a door like a door over there? No. He is not a literal door, but he is a real door into a real experience of God. Metaphor stands for reality. The word 'literal' is useless."
Is the word 'literal' literally useless?
Naturally one would take the example Lennox cites as an instance of figurative language. And, additionally, the statement attributed to Jesus that he compares himself to a door has not divided evangelicals into two widely disparate groups, such as we find in the case of creationism. Of course, the metaphor does not stand for reality; it stands for a fantasy. The notion of “Jesus” merely serves as a doorway to a mood in which the believer is encouraged to treat his religious fantasies as though they were reality, even though there’s no objectively verifiable evidence that any of it is true and mountains of objectively verifiable evidence that it is not true.
How about a less obvious example. In Mt. 17:20 Jesus is reported to have stated:
Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Should we interpret this literally or figuratively? After all, we’re talking about the very being which supposedly wished the entire universe into existence and, prior to this point in the gospel, performed all these wondrous miracles, including turning water into wine, curing congenital blindness by using the magical properties of his own saliva, walking on water, stilling storms, raising dead persons, etc. If this same being can create entire planets and raise dead people back to life when asked, why suppose that a verse promising the believer that, if he commands a mountain to be removed from the landscape – a verse which, in the same breath – coming from the supernatural mind which is supposed to have created the universe itself, promises that “nothing shall be impossible unto you,” why suppose that such a statement should be interpreted only figuratively? This same Jesus is reported elsewhere to have stated (Mk. 11:24):
Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
And yet elsewhere we find the following pledge affirmed by Jesus, according to John 14:13-14:
And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
These quotes are attributed to Jesus Christ, one of the members of the “Trinity,” which is credited for having created the world in the first place, by an act of will. Can Christians maintain any credibility on behalf of their worldview and their savior by saying, “Well, we must take such promises figuratively; Jesus never meant that he’d do ‘any thing’ we ask”? Lennox does not weigh in on such questions. Rather, he sticks to an example which is safe – one which is obviously figurative. But such obviousness is not available in other teachings found in the bible.
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
How many other portions of the New Testament is Lennox willing to categorize as figurative rather than literal? Was Jesus literally born of a virgin? Did Jesus literally walk on water? Did Jesus literally make the fig tree wither through his cursing? Did Jesus literally turn water into wine at the wedding in Cana? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead? Does Jesus literally save believers today from their sins? Are believers in Christ literally “new creatures” (cf. II Cor. 5:17)? Are believers literally “born again”?
How about the Old Testament? Did the Christian god literally instruct Abraham to prepare his son as a burnt offering (cf. Gen. 22)? Did the Christian god literally have an angel stop Abraham from carrying out the deed by sending an angel and a ram caught in the thicket by its horns? Did Moses literally climb Mt. Sinai and encounter a literal burning bush? Were the ten commandments literally written on stone tablets? Was Daniel thrown into a literal lions’ den? Was Jonah literally swallowed by a whale? Etc. Etc. Etc.
The bible clearly gives the impression that its supernaturalism is to be taken literally, that its stories of a god, angels, demons, devils, miracles, etc., are to be taken not merely as “literally true” for the believer’s internal contemplation, but as facts of history. So the figurative interpretation, we can argue, of biblical passages seems to be the exception – obvious cases like the one Lennox cites notwithstanding.
That Lennox picks an obvious case to demonstrate his point is no accident. Few would raise an objection to Jesus’ statement “I am the door.” But there is rumbling in the house. Christians of a different stripe are not at all pleased with Prof. Lennox. Lennox is not a signatory of “young-earth creationism,” and the views which he has espoused publicly in his defenses of Christianity do not go down well with the YECers. Here’s what Ken Ham (yes, that Ken Ham
) and Steve Golden of Answers in Genesis
have to say about Prof. Lennox’s interpretative skills (from their jointly written article John Lennox and a Sad Divide
There is no doubt that Dr. Lennox is prepared to allow for God to use the evolutionary process in the creation of human beings. We suggest that Dr. Lennox has one hermeneutic (method of interpreting Scripture) for Genesis 1–11 but a different one for the rest of Scripture. There is no doubt that Dr. Lennox would not use his hermeneutical approach (taking ideas from outside the Bible to reinterpret the Genesis account of creation) when dealing with the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection.
In his book, one of Dr. Lennox’s first attacks on biblical creation is to redefine what it means to read the Bible “literally.” He writes, “When we are dealing with a text that was produced in a culture distant from our own both in time and in geography, what we think the natural reading is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed” (pp. 22–23). Biblical creationists who believe the Genesis account of six literal days of creation are reading the Bible “literalistically,” according to Lennox.
It seems that some of Lennox’s fellow believers think he takes the “you can’t interpret the Bible so literalistically” a little too far… or way too far, as the case may be here.
Consider modern believers who claim to be literally in the presence of the risen Jesus. For example, we have this statement from Canon Michael Cole (for details, see here
I’m just aware of God being there in the person of Christ in all sorts of different situations, speaking to me by his spirit through the word of God. There was one particular experience when I was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me in the church I was serving, asking whether we would make him Lord of that church... I wouldn’t say anything about that for 24 hours, it was too personal, too close.
Clearly Cole wants us to take his anecdote literally – that Jesus was “actually standing” right there beside him. Would Lennox put this in the figurative category? Frankly, I see no reason to suppose this is nothing more than an active imagination on Cole’s part. But this kind of example (and there are thousands if not millions – one for every praying believer) raises an even bigger problem for Christianity: if we are to take Cole’s story literally, why suppose that the experience of the early Christian back in the first century was any different? In I Corinthians 15, for example, we read about the risen Jesus “was seen” by numerous persons – the vast majority of which are mentioned anonymously. Christians have historically interpreted these references as having involved a physical Jesus, bloody wounds and all, actually mingling among them. But if believers today can imagine a “spiritual” (or ghostly) Jesus standing right next to them, why suppose that the believers back in the first century had anything else in mind? Believers today thinking that they’ve been in the presence of a spiritual Jesus consider such an experience to be very powerful and religiously significant. It is this sense of importance that believers apply to their internal – i.e., subjective - experience which informs their devotional investment in their religious faith. So why suppose that the earliest Christians were any different? Appeals to the gospel narratives and the book of Acts does no good since these are later attempts to concretize various strands of the earliest version of the Christian message, a version which neither describes nor fully corroborates what we find in the later narrative writings of the New Testament. If the earliest Christian accounts had in mind spiritual encounters of the type that Canon Michael Cole reports – which does not involve a physical body of Christ, but rather a presence which is indistinguishable from something that is merely being imagined (indeed, how can we confirm that Cole was not merely imagining what he reports?) – it would be entirely understandable for later believers to interpret the earliest writings as having in mind a physical person instead of a supernatural poltergeist in the person of the Christ.
So again, it must be stressed that all matters of interpreting biblical texts in terms of preserving a specific religious perspective is an internal problem for Christians to sort out. Unfortunately, they never will be able to do so with any fully cross-denominational uniformity.
The tenth and final prompt is given as follows:
10) What is the evidence for God?
The article responds:
You can debate the existence of God until the cows come home. It can be very interesting, especially when you go into the detail and explore the subject in depth. But for an atheist, they might be missing the point or avoiding the real issue.
Theists assert that there is a god. Some people do not believe this claim; typically they don’t believe because they don’t think it’s true. Such persons are commonly called “atheists”: they do not believe that any gods exists. If theists are dissatisfied with this state of affairs – namely that some people do not believe their assertions that a god exists – they should either get over it or find some way to persuade non-believers on any virtues they believe their position may have. But they should definitely stop expecting others to simply accept their god-belief claims on their bare say-so. Any whiff of an appeal to authority is simply going to put non-believers off and reinforce the view that believers are authoritarian dupes.
Yes, anyone can explore the claim that a god exists into its deepest, never-ending details – or, what is commonly the case, the lack of any real detail. This is something I have done for over 20 years, and I continually come to the same conclusion, namely that gods are imaginary. Invincible evidence supporting this conclusion is the fact that, no matter what “argument” theistic apologists present on behalf of their god-belief claims, one has no alternative but to resort to his imagination in order to contemplate the god whose existence the theist claims to have proven. Whether he presents the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the ontological argument, the argument from causation, the argument from reason, the transcendental argument, etc., etc., the same result is inevitable: we must use our imagination to contemplate the god whose existence is allegedly proven by such maneuvers.
Now what I would like to know is, in what way is asking what the evidence for the existence of a god the believer may have an instance of “missing the point or avoiding the issue”? Claims need objective support in order to be accepted as truths; queries about evidence supporting god-belief claims are expressions of this recognition, and when believers flinch in response to such queries (as Lennox does here), they reinforce the view that they actually have no real evidence to support their god-belief claims.
In fact, since we are discussing knowledge claims which the article itself acknowledges can be endlessly debated, it is theists who are trying to evade the real issue when they try to change the subject once the question of evidence comes up. Efforts to redirect at this point only confirm the sneaking suspicion that the believer has nothing worthy of calling legitimate evidence in favor of his god-belief. He may imagine his god, and he may really fear what he imagines. Muslims, Hindus, and animists do the same thing. Muslims can give just as much evidence for Allah as Christians can for a risen Jesus, namely zilch. In spite of this fact, their emotional investment in their religious beliefs may be compelling throughout their entire being. But emotions are not a means of validating knowledge, nor is an appeal to some internal mystical experience a substitute for rational methodology.
An even deeper question – which, contrary to what Lennox insinuates here, theists misconstrue if not outright avoid completely – is the epistemological question: How do you know that there is a god? Specifically, what is the believer’s starting point and what method did he use to come to the conclusion “God exists”? How – i.e., by what method – did he identify what he calls “God” as a god, as a supernatural conscious being, in the first place? By what means is he aware of what he calls “God,” and how does he distinguish this means from his own imagination? How does he ensure that he has not made any mistakes at any point along the way? Etc.
Presuppositionalists have attempted to sidestep these epistemological matters by designating the god they worship as their epistemological starting point, thus discarding any need for a method of securing the claim “God exists” as a conclusion to an argument or inference. But such a move is rationally untenable and only strengthens the suspicion that the god which the believer worships is merely a figment of his imagination. For things that we imagine are immediately present in our conscious experience. If I imagine an invisible magic dragon in my garage, I do not need to “infer” its existence by reference to objectively distinguishable facts which I discover by looking outward. Rather, I just look inward, and there I have direct awareness of what I imagine, precisely because I’m imagining it. Thus epistemological questions which take reason as their standard are irrelevant to the experience of what the believer calls “God.” And if non-believers simply do the same thing – i.e., they are merely imagining the god which they describe – then they too will not need any arguments which seek to arrive at a conclusion; “God” becomes a magical starting point by a sheer act of will on the part of the believer. This is what is actually happening behind the scenes within the presuppositionalist “methodology.” Imagine first, and then camouflage this fact with a semblance of intelligent-sounding arguments which are really nothing more than cheap gimmicks and evasions.
Quoting Lennox, the article continues:
Prof Lennox advises to ask them the most important question:"Suppose I could give [evidence for God], would you be prepared right now, to repent and trust Christ?"
Why should this be Lennox’s first concern? If an astronomer tells us that he has evidence proving that Rheasilvia is the tallest known mountain in our solar system, does he check first to see if we’re willing to devote our lives to some set of cultic rites centered on a body of beliefs about Rheasilvia’s alleged significance to the human condition before he presents his evidence? What scientist would do this? By suggesting that he is in possession of evidence for the existence of his god, Lennox is apparently trying to put himself in the same category of credibility in which we find scientists who maintain an objective orientation to the facts they discover. But when Lennox sets aside the question “What is the evidence for God?” and instead inquires how prepared we might be to affirm a religious confession, he gives away the game: he hasn’t got any evidence to begin with! He’s not interested in persuasion; he’s seeking only after intellectual surrender. Someone who is in possession of legitimate evidence for his position does not insist on a personal religious commitment prior to presenting that evidence. But someone who has no legitimate evidence to begin with can be expected to play games like this.
It’s the tired old scam: we have to buy the snake oil first before we discover that it doesn’t cure anything.
So let’s ask the obvious question by way of reply to Lennox: If we answer his question in the negative (for you Christians out there, this would mean we say “no” to what Lennox asks here), would this mean that Lennox will withhold any evidence he supposedly has for his god’s existence, perhaps to punish us for maintaining our independence?
Apologists, if you think you have evidence supporting your god’s existence, why not just present it and let the chips fall where they may? If you are confident that whatever you present really is evidence for your god’s existence, why the hesitation? Why the caginess? Why the incessant squirming? The so-called problem of “divine hiddenness” has plagued theologians for millennia. If you believe you have a solution to this, present it and be ready for people to draw their own conclusions from it. Perhaps it’s this last part that inhibits most apologists: religion as such is inherently antithetical to intellectual independence.
The article continues:
Again, why is it that Christian apologists, who insist that everyone believe in their god and that there’s all this evidence pointing to their god’s existence, always get cagey all of a sudden when asked to identify that evidence? Apologists are notorious for just this – never just coming clean on what they consider to be “evidence” for their god-belief claims. Instead, they prefer to send us on never-ending wild goose chases.
So in conclusion, we should all see that Prof. John Lennox’s attempts to squelch criticisms of Christianity all ring hollow and leave the impression that either he hasn’t given these matters very deep consideration, or – more likely – he hopes that his audience does not give them the probing scrutiny which they deserve. In the late 18th century, the western world achieved the Age of Enlightenment and put religion on the retreat. But even the most cursory survey of the world today will show that religion – including its secularized variants – is making a huge comeback.
I strongly urge everyone reading this to watch Onkar Ghate’s lecture Religion vs. Freedom
and consider the many wonderful points he makes throughout it. Religion is clearly anti-liberty. But so is the secular statism that is engulfing the western world in endless regulations and wealth confiscation. We in the West have more than enough examples throughout history to teach us the lesson that statism can only cripple individual liberty, but in spite of all these examples, we are spiraling into a relentless freefall into authoritarianism. Religion provides the template for this demise, but the current welfare state has dressed itself in secular garb that disguises it as somehow being on the side of science. Consequently many of those who think the denial of evolution, for example, is anathema to human progress, succumb to the notion that the concept of individual liberty is necessarily linked with religion, and thus go along with the statists’ program of subjugating individuals to bureaucratic rule.
Prof. Lennox’s defense of Christianity is certainly no answer to the world’s problems – indeed, nothing that Christianity has to offer can provide the antidote to today’s variegated assaults on individual liberty. But neither can the attitude that essentially says “We need more government funding for science”! Get both the government and religion out of the equation entirely. Until we do that, the concept of individual liberty is doomed to die a quiet death on a stack of choking rules and edicts.
by Dawson Bethrick