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Answering Tough Questions

One of the great challenges facing church leaders currently is equipping their fellow-believers to give solid reasons for the hope they have, and to answer the challenging questions they get asked.  In this section you’ll find an apologetics course with accompanying resources, ready for you to adapt for your own situation and reuse.

Session 1 - Leader's notes

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Always open in prayer to God who cares about what we’re doing!

INTRODUCTION BY GROUP LEADER:

This course is called ‘Answering Tough Questions’.  That means two kinds of tough questions – the ones inside own head, and the ones our friends ask.

Why are we doing this?

We’re holding this course because we’re convinced the Christian faith is true.  That means we should never say `just believe`.  Rather, we should `always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for your hope!’ (1 Peter 3:15)

One of the tragedies of our postmodern world is it doubts increasingly whether we can ever know truth; and this is having disastrous results – in teaching and parenting for example.

But we have a God who speaks; we can know the truth because he shows us it; and the more we think with him about what he shows us, the more we’ll find it’s true.

So when our friends ask us questions -- honest questions deserve honest answers, and the answers exist.

This confidence means our lives are built on solid rock: `You will know the truth & the truth will set you free`, said Jesus. When the storms come we know who we’ve trusted & why.  The glory of the gospel is that it’s true, historically, factually.  We don’t believe just because we were brought up that way (or if we do, it won’t last), but because it’s true; not because it gives us nice feelings, but because it’s true. 

That’s why Paul `reasoned ... explaining and proving... trying to persuade... reasoned... argued persuasively... had discussions daily’ (Acts 17:3,18:4,19, 19:8,9); because it’s true!

Three things to start with:

 What we want to share above all with our friends isn’t answers to arguments.  Many of us enjoy the intellectual interplay of debating the reasons for faith.  It may often be necessary. But the heart of the gospel is something else - 'Christ crucified' (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2). This is what we all need to know to be saved from hell, and this is what we should be talking about, as soon as is possible and meaningful. 'Christ crucified' is the central issue, not the weaknesses of postmodernism or the complexities of evolutionary theory!  The aim of apologetics is to make a way for us to get to the central truths of the gospel: who Christ was and what he did; where we are and what we must do.  (Indeed we should always seek to answer the questions we are asked in a way that will point, if possible, to Christ and the cross.)  However, many of our friends have honest questions about our faith, and they deserve honest answers. But what we really want to do is clear any obstacles out of the way so as to talk about the things that matter most.

Secondly, we can never argue anyone into the kingdom of God. If the Bible is right, our human mind cannot reason its way to God. Paul tells us quite clearly that, normally, our minds are blinded, prejudiced, and we simply cannot see the truth of God (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 2:14). Something is fundamentally wrong with the human mind; it cannot independently find its way to ultimate truth. It can only respond when God shows us that truth, reacting in faith to God's grace (Eph 2:8).

This has two implications. Firstly, it takes a great pressure off us: we aren't called to win intellectual wrestling bouts with all our friends! Nor is evangelism a task that can really only be done by the expert; in fact God has actually chosen to use the weaker things of the world as his partners (1 Cor 1:27). Secondly, we're dealing with supernatural blockages where we need supernatural weapons with 'divine power' (2 Cor 10:4), and Ephesians 6 tells us what these are - prayer and the 'sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God'. So we come with our weak, faltering human words, crying to God to turn them into his penetrating word of grace which the Spirit will use to reveal himself to our friends.

This, incidentally, is the value of Watchman Nee's suggestion that, before discussing the reasons for faith, we challenge our friends to pray that God will reveal himself and his will (whether they actually believe there is a God to hear that prayer or not) - on the basis that, if he does, our friend will then be willing to follow him wherever he leads.  (Logically, they cannot hope just to perform casual experiments on the Almighty.)  Something like this: `God, I don’t know if you’re there [in fact I’m fairly sure you’re not];  BUT, if you help me know you’re real, then I will give my whole life to you, as my Maker who knows how my life should be, my true Father, my Lord.`   Often we find that challenging friends to such a prayer can bring to the surface the real reasons for unbelief - moral problems, perhaps, or a determination to preserve personal independence. There is no point in spending hours arguing over the reasons for faith if something fundamental is keeping the doors closed: better get the root of the issue out into the open. It’s surprising (or perhaps not) how many people there are who finally say, 'Well, even if God exists, I won't obey him.'

And thirdly, all this is about God revealing himself to us as individuals, and therefore very personal.  Evangelism is like holding a set of keys any one of which may open someone’s heart to the most important things in the world.

So why do we believe in God?  Multiple reasons for our hope...

For Christian belief the knowledge of God is something deeply personal.  There are many different areas which God may select to make us, as individuals, aware of his reality: the `keys' to our particular `lock'.

For some it may be personal experience of God's presence and God’s actions today – miracles, answered prayer, healings such as the ones we’ve seen……………….  – happening to ourselves or to someone we know well enough to trust. 

For others, it may be something very different – watching experience of God enabling someone we know to endure and even grow despite immersion in horrendous suffering; seeing that, somehow, their feet are set on solid rock.

For many it may be the Bible: our experience of being `spoken to' as we read it or hear it preached or study it in a small  group;  our sense of its profundity, relevance, and coherence (despite being written by so many different people over so many centuries);  our sense, as Peter said to Jesus, that these are `the words of eternal life'.

Or it may be its unique ability to foretell the future some centuries ahead - particularly the details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  (See, for example, the prophetic passages listed in ch.9 of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.)

For yet others, what we love most may begin to `turn the key'.  The first `intuition of God' may come through experiencing childbirth (`Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof', wrote Bruce Springsteen after the birth of his first child).  Jewish novelist Saul Bellow, writing about Mozart, said that `At the heart of my confession, therefore, is the hunch that with beings such as Mozart we are forced to speculate about transcendence, and this makes us very uncomfortable.'  George Steiner argues at length in Real Presences that the experience of great art only makes sense if it is underpinned by the reality of a God. Television naturalist David Bellamy wrote that his `road to Damascus was the wonder of the natural world.'  To the Christian, such intuitions are actually the revelation of God, to be stewarded with care:  `Take heed how you hear', said Jesus - the intuition of grace may not return, and we are responsible for what we do with it. 

The universe we inhabit poses further questions.  If there is no God, we must somehow conceive the cosmos as just `sitting there', as it were, expanding and contracting perhaps, but in existence for no imaginable reason.  Sartre's comment about the oddity of there being something rather than nothing has some force.  And that `something' includes the physical laws; the universe we live in is in many ways a stable place - we might say a curiously reasonable place.  The pattern of laws and constants that enables its existence in so rational and unchanging a manner might seem suggestive of a Law-maker.  `The mind refuses to look at this universe being what it is without being designed', said Darwin late in his life; Einstein remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was that it was comprehensible, and that he was glimpsing the handiwork of an `illimitable superior spirit' in what he perceived of the universe.

More recently, scientists have realised that the ratios and constants of the fundamental forces in the universe - from the subatomic to the astronomical - are incredibly finely balanced.  Indeed they seem balanced far too precisely to be the result of anything but intelligent design, since the margin of error was minimal (one part in a million in some cases) if a universe was to emerge that could contain intelligent life. `It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out', summarizes theoretical physicist Professor Paul Davies in God and the New Physics (see especially ch13).  `…The seemingly miraculous concurrence of numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence for an element of cosmic design.'  (The only alternative seems to be a cosmos developing endlessly into multiple new universes - that is, everything that can happen does, along with every possible combination of physical laws, until the `lottery' turns up a workable set  - an astonishingly prolific and unexplained generation of universes in a supposedly `empty' cosmos that seems harder to believe in than a God - and anyway can only ever be a matter of faith, but without any evidence.)  Cosmologist Fred Hoyle concurs: `I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed.'  Do we not sense a Maker behind these astonishingly productive principles that have brought such complexities out of almost nothing in this strange, pulsating cosmos? 

[Note: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God pp.134-35 has some great illustrations of this.]

Alongside this sense stand our intuitions of wonder: whether at the majesty of the galaxies, the glory and multitudinous living complexity of the natural world that has exploded out from the Big Bang, or the beauty of a sunset, a mountain-range, a stallion, a human baby.  Are those intuitions sentimentality, or apprehensions of a real Designer at work?  As we gaze thankfully at our world, from the sparrow to the panther to the human eye, it can be hard to avoid seeing it as the work of a personal Creator.

Or it may be other considerations; our sense of the reality of good and evil, the truth of love and beauty, the reality and value of the individual.  Yet these intuitions have become groundless in postmodernity as they have lost their grounding in God.  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God (probably the best book to read on all this at present), tells his reader `You already know that God exists`: we cannot live without a sense of right and wrong that only makes sense if there is a God (read Keller ch.9).   Is there indeed no intrinsic value for the individual, no intrinsic reality in love beyond lust and tactical alliance, and ultimately no ethics beyond our personal preferences?  Or maybe there is a God?  `Although man may say that he is no more than a machine, his whole life denies it', writes Francis Schaeffer.  In our profound experiences of love, beauty or justice we touch, not God indeed, but objective realities that only make sense in terms of God.  The truth of the Triune God makes sense of our profoundest hopes and intuitions - that people do matter, that egoism and cruelty are wrong, that love is real. Maybe we should listen; maybe our hearts were trustworthy all along.

And yet it is hard to `take God seriously' when the media don't.  But where does the majority opinion really lie?  Don't our European fashions of materialistic thought seem short-sighted when set in a wider context of history or geography?  The vast majority of the human race has always believed in a supernatural universe including a supreme God, so far as we can tell; and the majority certainly still does.  `The main issue is agreed among all men of all nations', said the Roman writer Cicero, `inasmuch as all have engraved in their minds an innate belief that the gods exist.'  In the next generation, Seneca argued similarly that no race had departed so far from the laws and customs that it did not believe in some kind of gods.  Calvin concurred, fourteen hundred years later: `There is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.'    And without doubt, the Christian church in particular has grown faster across the continents in this last century than in any previous one.  Of course we westerners tend to think of ourselves as `humanity come of age', and assume that because we control the world's media and educational systems our de-supernaturalised worldview must be the whole truth.  But humility might urge us to note the near-universality of belief in a supreme God elsewhere in the world, and to wonder if the majority of humankind isn't sensing something we have grown deaf to. So shall I stake my life on the probability that they are right, or that they are wrong?

And above all there is the evidence for Jesus, and for His resurrection, which we’ll be looking at in future weeks.  But God shows His reality to most of us through a combination of these things.  Make a list of the ones that are most meaningful to you.  And we also need to be alert to the combination of keys He will use to open the hearts of our various friends…   

[TIME FOR QUESTIONS.  THEN HALFTIME BREAK FOR COFFEE.]

DISCUSSION IN GROUPS OF THREE – what we do we say when a sympathetic unbeliever tells us `I don’t believe in all those miracles!`?   Let’s tell each other our responses – because we need to hear ourselves do it! – and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group.

When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…

  • Maybe your science is out of date! In      the world of quantum physics, it’s impossible to rule out extraordinary      events like miracles.                                                                      
  • If there’s a God who created the      scientific laws, that same God can suspend or supersede them.  
  • Historical fact: since the resurrection      happened, then not only is our own bondage to      death      broken, but our bondage to all the world’s other `laws` is subject to      God’s loving and healing intervention!

DISCUSSION AGAIN: `Science has disproved Christianity!`

Responses you’ll be looking for as leader this time could include…

  • In that case it’s surprising that so many      leading scientists are Christian. (See Keller again, pp.94-95.)
  • Science continually grows and learns. If      history continues, our science will seem as limited to the 23rd century as      the 18th century's science does to us.  All we can have are      provisional understandings.                                

In fact the famous science/faith clash is a myth.  As a historical fact, it’s no coincidence that the rise of science in Britain was driven by keen Christians like Newton and Boyle; and when the Royal Society arose in 1660, the majority of its members were Christians.  They thought of God having given two books, Bible and nature; science for them was a sacred attempt to "think God's thoughts after Him" - if there is a Lawgiver, it makes sense to try to understand his laws in the physical world as well as the moral one, and they did!    Philosopher of science Stanley Jaki points out that science was "stillborn" in other great civilizations outside Europe, not because they didn’t have the ideas, but because of worldviews that stifled scientific development.  Historically, both the Arabs and the Chinese were more inventive than eg the English: but the insights of both cultures never built up into a structure that could have led to modern science. Why?  In Islam God is fundamentally unknowable; his ways cannot be explored in the way that the Bible encourages, and also the Quran doesn’t teach us to think in extended rational argument like both the old and new testaments do.  Ancient Chinese religion taught the ultimacy of the Tao: things just are the way they are; there is little point in investigating beyond that.  Neither worldview seems to have fostered scientific enquiry; historically, faith in the Bible did.  (See R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, and Melvyn Bragg (not a Christian as we understand the term!), The Book of Books.)

In our time, however, conflicts over science and faith are usually about origins, evolution and Genesis. 

Evolution is an issue over which biblical Christians feel free to differ. There are three key positions and a great deal of debate which we wouldn’t dream of trying to solve in one session. (Once again Keller ch6 is well worth reading, though it’s a position a lot of us won’t share.) The notes you’ll get after tonight contain links to websites that are good examples of all these:

 Theistic evolution: the position that God used macro-evolution as he created the world.  See the websites of the main bodies for Christians who are professional scientists in Britain and America, Christians in Science  and the American Scientific Affiliation.  A key book is Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? 

At the opposite end of the spectrum is young-earth creationism, which is strongly anti-evolution but also opposes itself to the generally-accepted scientific view of the age of the earth; see the websites of the Biblical Creation Society, Answers in Genesis, or the Institute for Creation Research.

A third position is old-earth creationism, also sceptical about evolution but not about the age of the earth: see the websites of Reasons to Believe or Answers in Creation.

Then also the highly significant ‘intelligent design’ movement does not commit to any of these positions! It is systematically misunderstood in the media, but explores the possibility that the universe’s origins etc point towards an intelligent designer. Several branches of science now have well-defined procedures for distinguishing designed activity from chance phenomena; for example, the study of artificial intelligence; forensic science; archaeology; and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  All these fields need criteria for separating chance activity from what is intelligently designed.  By the criteria of these sciences, ID theorists argue, various factors, particularly the issue of information-origin and the high level of `irreducible complexity' in the universe, reveal clear signs of design.  See the websites of the Access Research Network or the Discovery Institute, and the books of William Dembski or John Lennox. (Lennox’s Seven Days that Divide the World may well be the key book on Genesis and origins for the next few years.)

Some simple points to make in conversation about all this:

  • Evolution is an issue over which Christians      feel free to differ.  Many have no difficulties believing both      evolution and the Bible; so it certainly hasn’t been proven that the two      are irreconcilable.
  • Others rightly observe that evolutionary      theory is far from finally ‘proven’ (scientific theories never are).       Some huge and fascinating problems do remain unsettled; see particularly      Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (also see Stephen Jay      Gould's extended review in the July 1992 Scientific American, and      Johnson's response in subsequent editions); also John Lennox’s God’s      Undertaker.   It's evident that a number of theorists affirm      Darwinian orthodoxy quite consciously because they are determined not to      believe in God; but if you don't have a problem with God, then the turmoil      generated by these challenges becomes intriguing. 
  • A particularly interesting issue is the      possibility that evolutionary theory, to work, may even necessitate      intelligent design underlying it.  Some secular cosmologists have      described the evolutionary process as so problematic that a higher      intelligence from space must have watched over it to make it work (cf Evolution      from Space by the non-Christian Fred Hoyle, in recent decades      Britain’s most respected cosmologist) – ie, if there’s evolution, there      must be some sort of Creator!

Three hot potatoes

Genesis isn't a scientific textbook, so although what it does tell us is absolutely reliable, it doesn't speak conclusively to questions we might find intriguing: like, To what extent did God make use of evolution in creation?  And Adam (which means 'the Man') and Eve (which means `the Mother'): did other humanoids exist before their creation, similar yet lacking God's gift of that invisible 'spirit' which marks truly human life?  Genesis may give us hints, but it simply doesn't tell us clearly about these things.

 `But doesn't Genesis say the world was made 6000 years ago?'  No, it certainly doesn't.  That infamous 4004BC date was worked out by a 17th century archbishop who didn’t understand how biblical genealogies work (though he wouldn’t have made the same mistake if he’d studied the one in Matthew 1).   (It’s for the same reason that we can’t date the flood from what Genesis tells us; let’s note too that the Bible doesn’t say unambiguously how local or regional it was [compare the way Luke 2:1 speaks of the whole world when Luke knows full well he’s referring only to the Roman world].  The flood may have been very early indeed.  A recent BBC2 programme described how current genetic science suggests that at one very early point in its history much of our human race was nearly wiped out, reduced down to a very small number of individuals, and it’s possible that this was the same event as Genesis 7 describes.)

  `But doesn't Genesis insist that the world was made in a week?'  No, it certainly doesn't.  It structures its story around six 'days' of creation, but it isn't concerned to spell out what it means by `day` either.  There are plenty of biblical Christians who see Genesis 1 as essentially poetic (Keller’s book compares it to, say, the way Judges 5 is written; see also Roger Forster’s excellent Reason, Science and Faith).  And even if (like the author of these notes) you don’t go with the `poetry` theory, we can’t deny that Genesis puts a question-mark over its meaning for `days`; for the `great light' of the sun, marking day and night, isn't part of the story till halfway through the process (the fourth `day', 1:14-18).  So we may read these `days', if we choose, as 24-hour periods; or, as elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:2 or 2 Peter 3:8), far longer ones (which may also overlap).  (Just as we speak of `living in the day of the mobile phone and the television.`)  But in fact the Hebrew original, unlike our English Bibles, describes these days as `day one', `day two', etc; or, 'a first day', 'a second day'.  So if this issue is getting in our way, we may recall that the text offers the option of five enormous gaps of millions of years of process, each of which follows and precedes `a day' of God's intervening initiative, God's special creative action.

 `Well, surely you don't believe in Adam and Eve?'  But how does one go about `believing in Adam and Eve'?  The word `Adam' is simply the Hebrew for 'Man', and 'Eve', as Genesis states, comes from 'Mother of all the living' (3:20). So 'believing in Adam and Eve' simply means believing that at some point in history there came a first‑ever couple who could be described as truly human; which is obviously true.  Logically, they're called `The Man' and `The Mother of All the Living'.  What Genesis then offers is the information that God placed them in a `garden`, a perfect environment (it doesn’t state whether the whole world was perfect or already corrupted by Satan, and the military `subdue` in 1:28 may suggest the latter); but that our race’s history was shaped by our losing this perfection in a fundamental crisis caused by the disobedience of this couple demanding to run their lives their own way and `be like God` themselves, a basic gospel issue (3:5).  Science can have nothing to say either for or against either piece of information.

So nothing in contemporary science can be proven to contradict what Genesis actually says about origins (actually something quite remarkable in so ancient a book). The problems are illusory…

 So: can we talk about Jesus?

(Assignment before next session: Ask God for the opportunity to share some of this with someone who’s not yet a Christian, this week…)

 Pete Lowman.    

 © Pete Lowman.