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November 13th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Why I Am a Christian

Why I Am a Christian

I often ask the question of myself, and am sometimes am asked by others, “Why am I a Christian?” By that question I suppose different things are meant, such as “why am I a theist rather than an atheist or agnostic or pantheist?” And, if I am a theist, “why am I a Christian instead of a Jew or a Muslim or a Zoroastrian?”

These are all good questions indeed. I’d like to take a brief stab at answering them, though, in truth, the question could take many many pages, if not books, to answer.

At one level, and quite a apart from any intellectual ponderings about the nature of things, I must say that I am a Christian because “something happened” in my life and heart back in my teens when I first heard the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ taught in the context of a youth retreat. At a simple level Jesus was presented in such a way that I found myself “inviting him into my heart,” to use the language of that day and time. I was prepared for the message I suppose by some innate sense of God’s existence, and it is true that I did not have any significant intellectual hindrances to believing that this Jesus might actually be there and be alive. And so, when I “asked him into my life” it was not against any serious intellectual objections to the basic notions.  Perhaps in my youthful wanderings through the woods, in dealing with the difficult issues within my family, particularly my father’s drinking, in feeling incomplete and knowing I was incomplete, possibly after having listened to my sister speak of her relationship to God (though I treated her terribly), perhaps even due to some things I was taught in a confirmation class years before – in all of that I perhaps was “ripe” for the message of that retreat.

So, no, I did not first engage in serious study of the nature of the universe, the arguments for the existence of God, the probability of the resurrection of Jesus, or any such thing. Reflecting back now from the standpoint of my own present Christian world view and faith, I would say in fact that I became a Christian because God came to me and did something to me and in me such that believing in Him at that moment came “naturally.” I believe now that He had prepared me for that moment in time in many ways that I, at the time, was not consciously aware of. It is not without significance that there were after that night of “asking Jesus into my heart” immediate and spontaneous changes in me, changes which were also not brought about at a conscious level by me deciding to live this way and not that way, changes not even brought about by any conscious sense of guilt over wrongdoing. It was as if one day I liked the color blue and awoke the next day to like the color red. I seem to have been made into a different person.

I did lots and lots of reading after that initial conversion. The C. S. Lewis science fiction trilogy was perhaps the most significant tool in teaching me about the larger themes associated with my new faith. I also read most of his other books, and many books by Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and the like.

I now refer to that process as “faith seeking understanding.” Often a person comes to believe, really finds himself believing, and yet his or her understanding of what it is that he or she believes is rudimentary at best. And then the lifelong process of filling in the blanks begins.

So, if any of you reading this essay were hopeful that I would provide the definitive argument for the truth of God’s existence and the truth of the message of the New Testament, as if it was first an elaborate study of such things that led me to faith, well, I hate to disappoint you, but it didn’t work that way for me, and this little essay does not provide any definitive argument. However, what I will do now is answer simply and  rationally the questions first listed above as clearly as I can, from the very biased standpoint of one who believes already, and knowing that full treatment of these matters would take volumes.

Why do I believe in the existence of God? Well, even the question itself presupposes very much indeed. It presupposes some common idea of what a “god” might be in which I or others might believe. By “God” I mean an infinite personal being who exists independently of me and of history and who is not equal to and the same as matter and energy.

So, really I am answering the question, “Why am I a theist?” as opposed of course to being an atheist, who believes that there is not in fact such a personal being in existence, or as opposed even to being a pantheist, whose god as far as I can understand it is not a personal being or entity outside of and apart from the rest of the physical/spiritual reality.

For me there is one primary compelling reason for being a theist. Stuff exists. There is by all appearances a universe out there, a planet, people, stars, forces, life, made up of some extremely complex interactive relationships of matter and energy, a good deal of which we don’t understand.

Though I do not believe that the old argument of “first cause” is necessarily “proof” per se, it is impressive to me nonetheless. From where or what or whom did all this stuff come? How did it come to be? Because it seems that causation is a primary attribute of space time reality (every event seems related causally to a prior event) it does not make sense to me that there has never been an initial first cause, a true beginning imposed from the outside of the space time causal universe. Stuff is there and its bare existence demands our attention. How did it get there? So, to me, though it is not watertight as a formal proof, the explanation that there is a personal infinite God who created all things from nothing strikes me as extremely reasonable, and more reasonable than all the various other explanations as to the origin of the universe.

That fact that our universe is by all appearances ordered, that there is a correlation between its order and the workings of our own brains, i.e., that there are “rules” or “laws” which determine or at least describe much of its workings and which can be discovered and understood by us, that there is an aesthetic correlation between ourselves and our brains and this external world such that we find it to be “beautiful” – all of this argues to me for the existence of a rational and creative God who made both the universe and us as human beings. In other words, given the universe as we understand it, and ourselves as ones who have the capacity for understanding it, the existence of a rational and infinite creator being seems to be credible; it fits the evidence well and explains much; and it correlates with our own rationality and creativity as beings.

And when I look at human beings all over the world, people from every sort of ethnicity, race, and cultural background, I am amazed to find several common threads. All people everywhere have an innate sense of there being this certain quality or attribute regarding human behavior which we might call “right” and this quality or attribute of behavior that we might call “wrong.” Now, one person’s right may be another’s wrong, yet, everyone everywhere has this sense that there is a right and there is a wrong. Even people who say otherwise are betraying themselves. For they believe that their belief, that nothing can be called right or wrong, is, well, right, and that the beliefs of people who think that there is a right and a wrong are, well, wrong. So, there seems to be within the human species a universal sense of the ultimate moral nature of human life. I have tried hard to understand how it could be that such a universal moral sense could itself have been part of the process of natural selection; that is, that there was to our species a beneficial aspect to our brains being this way and not another way. And yet it seems unreasonable to me that all of the incredibly complex anatomical and biochemical and hormonal aspects to our neurological and endocrinal systems – all the stuff that has to be in place for us to have this complex moral sense – “fell into place” and was selected out in the relatively short time of the development of the human species from the non-human species. And if we argue that this “moral” sense is simply passed down environmentally and culturally, we are still left with the fact that it has either been passed down from the very first human beings, which begs the question of how they stumbled into this sense, or we are left saying that different peoples have all “developed” this sense independently in isolation and then passed it down to their forbears, which begs the same question eventually. It seems to me that this moral sense is “innate” and part of the package, part of the nature of the human species. And it rings true to me, and makes more sense as a rational explanation, that this moral sense reflects a deeper and more foundational moral sense “underneath” it and built both into the fabric of the universe and into the fabric of our natures. And so, as an explanation, the notion that the world was created by a moral being whose nature in some way we reflect makes sense to me, and seems more reasonable than the alternatives.

I would say the same about the universal innate human sense that there is such a thing as objective truth. Oh I know that this idea is passé in these “postmodern” times, and there is no doubt that the long term impact of pluralism and secularism and consumerism have trained us in the affluent western world to have a more relativistic feel for the nature of things. But try as we may we cannot escape the box we’re in. Even postmodern thinkers think they’re right about there not being ultimate truth. Even politically correct intellectual do-gooders cannot get around the fact that they think they are right when they say either that all is perception and that everybody must be free to follow his or her own personal truth, none of which can be said to be better or superior than other truths. I have never met people more passionate than those who are committed to the “truth” that there is no truth to be committed to. And so, as I step back, and look at the universal human sense that there is in fact a “truth” to be known and discovered, well, the notion that there is a rational being who created us and all things – and that there is such a thing as truth and such a thing as non truth – well, this just makes sense to me, more sense than the other potential explanations.

I am also impressed by the almost universal sense amongst peoples of all tribes and nations, of all races and ethnicities, that “something or someone is out there.”  Something about us as human beings seems always to be leading us to think, imagine, hope for, believe in, or fear the existence of a god or gods of some sort. Atheism has never seemed to come naturally to human beings. There is indeed this almost universal “religious” sense pervading our species. Yes, it finds expression in many diverse and contradictory ways, but people everywhere, except of course in Europe and California, seem to believe that there is a god out there. I have to ask myself why. What best explains this innate human sense? Is there a religion gene? Can it be argued that at the deepest level of our brain anatomies and chemistries (and of course as a result of time and chance), that in our development as a species those individuals and groups whose brains by chance and mutation have been altered physiologically and anatomically to produce this religious sense have won out – that this characteristic has proven to offer survival advantages such that this mutated branch of our lineage has become more successful, such that those other individuals and groups who did not had these characteristics have disappeared and died out?  Well, anything is possible I suppose. But it makes more sense to me to believe that we human beings are created by God to reach for Him, to know Him, such that all human beings have always attempted to do just that, believing in God or gods of all types, yet all believing in some being who is pout there and responsible for our creation.

But this brings me now to another level of belief, if you will. Even if there is a creator God who has a rational, creative, and moral aspect to his being, there are many alternative takes on who or what this God is like, and what, if any, his or its relationship with the created order is like.

Once again, when I look around me, when I sense and feel (as much as I can bear to) the reality of human experience, the story of the Bible rings true as to its explanatory power. For when I look around I see this incredible mix of good and of evil, of beauty and of ugliness, of courage and of cowardice, of faithfulness and faithlessness, of love and of hatred, of honor and of dishonor. It seems that every person is a mix of all of these attributes. Most of us feel this mix within ourselves as well as see it around us. Yes, it is possible that we have evolved in ways that seem mutually contradictory, that the selection out of certain attributes for advantage in one area of life brings disadvantage in another. But the story of Genesis 1-3 rings more powerfully true to me, a story of noble creatures created in the image of a good and holy God, who have themselves fallen into rebellion and been cursed with an inability to regain or reclaim that which has been lost. This story explains both our nobility and our pettiness, our capacity for love and for hatred, our love for life and disregard for it, all at the same time. We know how hard-wired we are, not just for good, but also for evil. Most of us know, and fear, what lurks inside. And so the basic story-line of “creation and fall”squares with our common experience of the human race and the workings of our own inner person. It rings true. The world, it seems to me, is very much like a world created and fallen according to the story-line of the book of Genesis.

But several faiths claim these chapters as their own –the Jewish first of all, the Christian, and the Muslim. So why am I a Christian rather than a Muslim or a Jew?

The answer to this question rises or falls on the question of the validity of the New Testament account of Jesus of Nazareth. For, if this account is accurate and true, and particularly if it is the case that this Jesus of Nazareth was raised bodily from the dead, then it is most likely also the case that what Jesus is reported to have said about himself and about the kingdom of God is also true.

As a Christian I am struck, even stunned, by the many ways that the life and story of Jesus seem to be fulfillments of ancient Jewish prophecies. I could name many of these. But this is nowhere more the case that in the accounting in Isaiah 53 of the “Suffering Servant,” who, it says, “bore our iniquities and carried our sorrows.” When I read the gospel accounts of the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and then read Isaiah 53, it is as if I am reading the very same story. The detailed similarities are stunning. In fact, did I not know better, I would be tempted to wonder if perhaps the gospels came first and Isaiah 53 came after. Or, I would be tempted to think that the story of the last day of Jesus’ life, and his death and resurrection, was part of a vast conspiracy to make people believe that Jesus was the one spoken about hundreds of years earlier in Isaiah 53. Can you imagine who would have to have been involved to pull off that conspiracy? Had the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day themselves accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, and if they were of ignoble character, one can almost imagine such a conspiracy succeeding. But they didn’t believe that to be the case about Jesus, and they were not of ignoble character. It just seems credible to me that the arrest and trial and suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus looks like fulfillment of the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53, because, well, it is the fulfillment, and that Jesus was in fact the one foreseen in Isaiah 53.

And I am drawn to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and to the suffering Jesus, and yes, I do believe that He bore my iniquities and carried my sorrows.

But none of that suffering would have mattered if Jesus had stayed dead. Yes, it would still be a story filled with pathos that would draw people into it who had themselves experienced suffering as part of the human condition. But the suffering as a suffering in the place of others, a suffering which bore iniquity and sin for others, that part of the story would have had no objective reality or meaning unless the subsequent resurrection were true. For, historically speaking, the same accounts which have Jesus telling the disciples that he would die as a ransom for many also have him telling them that he would rise from the dead. So how could one accept the notion of Jesus suffering in the place of others without accepting the notion of him seeing life and the light of day on the other side of that suffering, as both are part of the prophecy in Isaiah 53 and both are prophesied by Jesus himself.

Ultimately, there is no way to separate out the Jesus who said he would rise from the dead from the Jesus who said he would die as a ransom for many or the Jesus who told his followers to love one another. Those that try to pick and choose from the New Testament accounts those specific things that they think Jesus may have actually said, or those events which they think are more likely than the other events, well, these are on a fool’s errand and are revealing more about themselves than about Jesus. There is no historically credible way to “get behind” the gospel accounts, as it were, to find the real Jesus back there somewhere. To believe, for example, that Jesus likely said something like “love one another” but did not say “and on the third day I will rise again” is simply to believe what one wants to believe.

It is honorable and fair for the Jewish person to believe outright that Jesus did not rise from the dead and that the New Testament accounts of his rising are fictional. It is honorable and fair for the Jewish person to disbelieve what Jesus said about himself as the promised Messiah. It is perfectly reasonable at several levels and for several good reasons that the Jewish leaders would want to get rid of such a person if they believed him to be bogus. But is neither honorable nor fair nor reasonable for the pseudo-Christian New Testament scholar simply to create his own personal Jesus by picking and choosing what he or she thinks Jesus is likely to have said or done.

As to the Muslim view of Jesus, as much as I understand it, it does not seem credible to me to believe that Jesus was a good prophet and important messenger of the one God but not to believe in his bodily resurrection. For then one has to conclude that either Jesus was just plain wrong about himself, or that he was as a complete lunatic, or that he never said such things about himself at all (which is problematic as mentioned above), and that the accounts of his being raised from the dead were fictional, the latter raising its own set of historical problems as I will explain below.

Again, to me, what we think of as the historic Christian understanding of Jesus (in all its aspects) ultimately depends on the truth of his resurrection from the dead. Did it happen? Is there any corroborating evidence outside of the accounts of Jesus’ early followers that it did in fact happen? Well, as I look at it, there is such evidence, and it is powerful and almost irrefutable.

The disciples, of course, could have said anything they wanted to say about Jesus – what he had said and done while alive, the nature of his teachings, their beliefs that he was the promised Jewish Messiah. They could even have gotten together and cooked up a story about seeing him alive after he had died. That too is possible. But is it likely? I don’t think so.

What seems absolutely historically certain is that the disciples of Jesus really themselves believed that he had risen from the dead. What makes this certain is not simply that they said he had risen from the dead. What makes this seem certain is that they spent the rest of their lives, and indeed, in almost every case, they each gave up their lives, proclaiming and teaching that it was so, and that they themselves had seen and talked with Jesus after his death and burial.

The evidence is overwhelming, historically speaking, that the disciples of Jesus went to their graves believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Why would they do that? I have no credible explanation for this except that it was true, that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead and had in fact appeared to them over the course of forty days just as their accounts say that he did. To propose that the resurrection was not true, but that they all believed it was true, and spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that it was true, well, that itself just does not ring true.

Yes, there is the lame attempt to suggest for example that the disciples had all fallen under a spell, a sort of group hallucination. That is certainly not normal to human experience, though one can suppose that it is possible.

And yes, it has also been suggested that the disciples were victims of their own really strong psychological desires that the resurrection be true, such that their emotional need caused them to believe that it was so. That is possible.

But better to be a grown up about it and just say that they conspired, they lied, and they made it all up. And frankly, that is possible too. Human pride and stubbornness could have been a motive. Human pride can steel people to do all sorts of immoral and stupid things. But is it credible to believe that the disciples would have spent their entire lives, and given up their very lives in often brutal deaths, for the sake of such a lie? It just seems far-fetched to me.

Much more credible is the simple explanation that the reason that the disciples believed Jesus to have raised from the dead is that he was raised from the dead just as they believed. Had they been confronted with the real risen human Jesus, raised to life on the other side of death, then they would have been motivated not only to tell everyone about it, and to believe and put forward the teachings of Jesus before and after his death, but to die if necessary in the process, for the truth which they knew to be so. The truth of the resurrection makes sense of the rest of the story.

Believing the resurrection to be true is more plausible than believing it not to be true.

Which means, if the resurrection is true, that it is reasonable for me to believe the truth of all the other things that Jesus said, such his claim that he would die as a ransom for many, such as his claim that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish covenant, such as his claim that he was indeed the king that was to come, the messiah.

And if the resurrection of Jesus is true, and happened as Jesus said it would, it means that I am inclined to believe the things that Jesus believed about the existence of God, the creation of the world, about the nature of human beings, and about the historical pattern of creation, fall, and redemption. This also means that I am inclined to believe the truth of the stories Jesus Himself believed to be true, stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. This also means that I believe what Jesus has said to be true about the future, the future of the universe, the future of the earth, and about the future of his own return. This also means that I am inclined to believe that Jesus has the right to tell me what following him is to look like, and what is right and not right for me as a human being to do and say to my neighbor.

It seems that we have come full circle. Not only are there good reasons to believe in the existence of an infinite and personal God, the creation of the world and human beings by this God, the truth of the basic story-line of the first chapters of the Bible, there are also good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and working backward, the truth of Jesus as the promised messiah, and working backward again the truth of what Jesus understood about the nature of God and the nature of the universe. In the end it all seems to fit together as credible and reasonable.

And so, for me, all these things added together answer the question, “Why am I a Christian?”

But what happened personally to me 30 years ago when I asked Jesus into my heart is also part of the reason for believing. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, Jesus promised that when people believed in him they would be changed, converted, altered, made different. And this has been happening now for two thousand years: men, women, and children walking down the road, minding their own business, and bam, here comes Jesus into their life and they are never the same. The historical fact of the profound conversions of millions and millions of people all over the world, men and women from every nation and race and ethnic group, itself argues for the truth of the message of Jesus. For he said that such would be so. And so it has been. And it was for me, thirty years ago now, as I was lying in my bed in my house at 6438 Bridgewood Road, Columbia, SC, talking to God, asking Jesus to come to into my heart, then going to sleep and waking up a new person, a Christian.

In Jesus,

Joel Gillespie

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  • Gordon
    11:06 pm on November 13th, 2008 1

    Well said. I can really relate to your journey. God encouraged me tonight as I read this. Thanks for sharing!


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