Science in Christian Perspective


Cross-Based Apologetics
for a Scientific Millennium

George L. Murphy*

Trinity Lutheran Seminary
Columbus, Ohio 43209-2334

From: PSCF 52 (September 2000): 190-193.

Weaknesses of Evidentialist Apologetics

One popular approach to Christian apologetics starts with facts and methods of argument to which Christians and unbelievers can agree, and proceeds to construct a case for Christian belief. Such evidentialist apologetics may sometimes be effective in helping to bring people to faith, but there are serious problems with this approach. Theology and science together can help us to develop a better one.

An evidentialist apologetic assumes that there is some common standard for religiously relevant evidence for Christians and non-Christians. We have learned in modern science and mathematics to be wary of common sense because it is inadequate to represent reality. Moreover, all data is theory-laden to a greater or lesser extent. Presuppositions and theories are unavoidable, but problems arise when we are not aware of our presuppositions or think naively that they are the only ones we could make.

Christians and non-Christians often share a common understanding of God--the timeless, immutable, impassible One of traditional philosophical theism, "without body, parts, or passions."2 This God is the God in whom atheists generally do not believe. Many Christians do believe in such a God. So do Jews, Muslims, and the person in the street who professes belief in A Higher Power, The Man Upstairs, or some similar deity.

It may be possible to start from this concept and bring a person to believe the truth of Christianity. But even if this happens, the original concept of "God" is likely to remain unexamined, and to be reconciled only uneasily with distinctive Christian beliefs. These ideas of philosophical theism have been viruses within the body of Christian thought that have weakened the Church and attenuated proclamation of the Gospel. Specifically, they are:3

1. Divine immutability and impassibility make the doctrines of the Incarnation and the death of God on the cross problems that theologians must solve, instead of solutions to problems. The notion that God is without body or passions contradicts the Christian belief that the One who is true God from true God has a body born of Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate. (Lest it be thought that ascription of suffering to God is a modern innovation, note the statement of the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553: "If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema."4

2. Related to that failure is the fact that overemphasis on divine unity--that is, the fear of anything suggesting that God has "parts"--results in an effective unitarianism. Again, the Trinity becomes a problem rather than the Christian answer to the question, "Who is God?" What most western Christians think is Trinitarian belief is usually modalism--e.g., the Trinity is like water, ice, and steam.

3. Besides accepting problematic concepts of God, the evidentialist approach also tends to argue for design, harmony, and beauty of the world in naive ways. Certainly Christians want to say that the world is designed, harmonious, and beautiful in important senses, and can appeal to things like anthropic principles in support of these claims. But the evolution of life, which anthropic fine-tuning makes possible, is a process in which natural selection--and thus competition, predation, loss, death, and extinction--plays an important role. An apologetic that downplays suffering in the world, explains it with implausible claims about effects of the Fall, or that denies evolution, will be ignored by many thoughtful people.

A Cross-Based Apologetic

For many purposes, and especially when addressing scientifically literate people, it may be better to begin with a full, adult, industrial-strength statement of the Christian claim: The most profound understanding of life and the universe is to be found in the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth. To use "God" language, we can say: God is revealed most clearly in the cross of Christ.

Is that a crazy idea? Of course! From the standpoint of traditional theism or the corresponding traditional atheism, it is an absurd claim. The question is, however--as Niels Bohr is said to have asked about some new theory--whether it is crazy enough to be true.

Developments in mathematics and physics since the sixteenth century should have taught us not to judge theories by criteria of common sense. Whether the presuppositions of a theory seem plausible initially is not the question to ask. We have to work out the consequences of those presuppositions to see how well they help us to understand the world.

The first example that comes to mind is Copernicus's heliocentric theory. In the sixteenth century, the idea seemed ridiculous. Of course everything revolved around the earth--all you had to do was look! If the earth were moving at twenty miles a second, the birds would get left behind. (This was before Galileo's principle of inertia, which also contradicted common sense.) But Copernicus's theory opened up a new way of understanding the world more profoundly and more accurately.

Two centuries ago everyone thought that the true geometry of the world was Euclid's, and Kant even claimed that it was a necessary part of the way our minds grasped experience. Euclid's parallel postulate was considered a "scandal," not because anyone doubted its truth but because it seemed that it should be provable on the basis of the other postulates. Bolyai and Lobachevsky, however, took the radical steps of assuming another postulate about parallels, one which contradicted intuition, and of showing that a geometry just as consistent as Euclid's could be obtained.5

That showed that there is more than one consistent mathematical system, and became even more important a hundred years later when Einstein based general relativity on Riemann's non-Euclidean differential geometry.

The precursor to that, special relativity, provides a final example. Einstein's postulate that the speed of light is the same for all inertial observers is inconsistent with the common sense ideas of space and time of Newtonian physics. Einstein's answer was that common sense ideas, and especially belief in an absolute time, should be given up. Special relativity is accepted by physicists today not because its postulates have some a priori plausibility but because their consequences can explain a wide variety of observational results.

Now when we introduce special relativity to people, we do not try to convince them to believe that the speed of light is invariant on the basis of everyday experience. Instead, we ask them to entertain the possibility of that claim, and invite them to consider the world from that standpoint. They can then see that this postulate leads to a better understanding of the world than do intuitive notions of space and time.

Similarly, we should not try to persuade people on grounds of common sense that the fundamental level of reality is revealed in Christ crucified. We should be explicit about the ways in which this claim runs counter to common sense, and invite people to consider their lives and knowledge of the world from this standpoint. This does not mean that we ask them to believe something even though it is crazy, much less because it is crazy. What we should ask of them is simply a "willing suspension of disbelief," supported perhaps by an appeal to the scientific examples we have noted. They can then be brought to see how this idea of God revealed in the cross can address feelings of guilt, lack of meaning, and fear of death. If they have been influenced by scientifically based arguments against religion, they can be helped to see how this concept of God and God's relationship with the world can respond to them, as we will discuss shortly. The hope is that the person will be brought beyond mere intellectual speculation to genuine faith in Christ--bearing in mind that the Holy Spirit, not apologetes, converts people.

We may think of this process in terms of the old analysis of faith into knowledge of what is to be believed, intellectual assent to its truth, and confidence by which one personally appropriates this truth to oneself and trusts in Christ.6

The approach suggested here is to give people knowledge of what is to be believed full strength, not some watered-down, all-purpose theism: The one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, is true God. Discussion of personal and scientific issues may lead to intellectual assent to the truth of this claim and bring the person to the most important part of faith, trust in Christ crucified, though the point at which that may occur is hardly predictable. But if it happens, the new Christian can start with an understanding of God untroubled by ghosts of philosophical theism. "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corin. 1:18).

It is important to realize that this does not amount to saying that Christianity is irrational. Rationality refers to the process of reasoning from our initial presuppositions, not to some inherent plausibility of those presuppositions themselves. Philosophy should not impose its presuppositions upon Christian theology, but once Christian theology adopts its distinctive presuppositions it should develop their consequences in rational ways.

Scientific Issues

Previously I have discussed ways in which a theology of the cross provides a context for issues raised by science.7 Not all of those issues can be considered here, but we may note two which often pose problems for traditional theistic beliefs.

The claim that God is revealed in the cross of Christ is paradoxical, for there God is most deeply hidden to those who seek the deity of common sense religion. But this claim sheds light on one problem, the apparent absence of God in the universe. Science enables us to understand what happens in the world without any reference to a deity. That is what we might expect of the God who reveals himself and saves the world in the hiddenness of the cross. The Christian claim is that this God works continually through natural processes which serve not only as divine instruments but also as "masks of God."8

We have already pointed out the problems which Darwinian evolution poses for theism with its argument that the development of life has come about through natural selection. This means that suffering, death, and extinction would have to be understood as means by which God creates life, and thus presents an even more severe challenge than the question of how God can allow evil. The picture of an immutable God himself immune from suffering who forces billions of organisms through this evolutionary process is difficult to reconcile with ordinary notions of divine benevolence. The Christian claim, however, is that God becomes a participant in this process on the side of the losers: In the short term, it is Pilate and Caiaphas who "survive." This does not provide a simple resolution of all the difficulties raised by natural selection, but it provides a distinctively Christian way of approaching them.9 It means that with all the evil we encounter in the world, God as "Immanuel" is in it with us.

The Resurrection of the Crucified

It may seem surprising that to this point the resurrection has not been mentioned. There are several reasons for this. First, we avoid getting involved at the start in debates about the historicity of the empty tomb and the Easter appearances. A good case can be made for the basic historical truth of these biblical accounts. The arguments of Pannenberg, e.g., should be studied.10 But it is simpler to start with an event about which there is little debate. Few serious historians debate the claim that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion under the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. (Muslims are an exception, but this is due to religious preconceptions, not historical study.)

The plausibility of the resurrection cannot be assessed as an isolated event. It must be considered in connection with the whole life, ministry and crucifixion of Jesus. We would have every reason to doubt a claim that someone of whom we knew nothing else was seen by friends after he died and that his tomb was empty. The Christian claim is not the resurrection of "someone" but that of One who believed God to be his Father, proclaimed God's kingdom, showed unconditional love for others, forgave sins, and was obedient to God's will, even to death on a cross.

The most serious problem with the usual presentation of the resurrection is that it comes to be seen as a cancellation of the cross. The cross is thought of as temporary bad news which can be forgotten in the light of Easter. The radical character of the cross, its affront to common sense religion, and also its ability to address issues which common sense religion is unable to deal with, is thereby eliminated. The resurrection does not do away with the scandal of the cross but perpetuates it, for it means that the Crucified is Lord. Paul devoted a whole chapter of 1 Corinthians to the resurrection, but when he first came to Corinth his message was simply "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corin. 2:2).

Apologetic use of the resurrection can also foster the unhealthy notion that the reality of God is demonstrated only by special miraculous interventions into the natural order. We ought to remember that in the synoptic Gospels, it is at the cross, not the empty tomb, where the pagan world begins to see who Jesus is. The centurion says of the dead Jesus, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mark 15:39).

Some people may be brought to faith by a promise of eternal life, but that is not the approach suggested here. I would urge instead the attitude of C. S. Lewis:

I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if--let's make an impossible supposition--His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, "They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending"--would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: "The Giants and the Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin."11



1This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 199 Annual Meeting of the ASA

2Article I, "Articles of Religion," The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 867.

3For the following issues, see especially Eberhard J¸ngel, God as the Mystery of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983).

4"The Fifth Ecumenical Council" in The Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, 2d ser., vol. XIV (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 314.

5D. M. Y. Sommerville, The Elements of Non-Euclidean Geometry (New York: Dover, 1959), Chap. 1.

6Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3d ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 410-24.

7For the following, see George L. Murphy, The Trademark of God (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986); "Chiasmic Cosmology: An Approach to the Science-Theology Dialogue," Trinity Seminary Review 13 (1991): 83; and "The Theology of the Cross and God's Work in the World," Zygon 33 (1998): 221.

8Martin Luther, "Psalm 147" in Luther's Works, vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 114.

9George L. Murphy, "The Cross Alone is Our Theodicy," dialog 36 (1997): 69.

10Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus--God and Man, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), Chapter 3. A more recent discussion, over against the arguments of Gerd L¸demann, is Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Resurrection of Jesus: History and Theology," dialog 38 (1999): 20.

11C. S. Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (Glasgow: William Collins Sons, 1966), 120.