For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

How Do You Know Christianity is True?

Skeptics and scoffers love to watch Christians squirm. One of their favourite questions to ask is "How do you know that Christianity is true?" In classrooms, coffeeshops, and family gatherings the question is asked again and again.

How do you respond to a question like that? Does it make you uncomfortable?

There are a variety of ways to approach the question, but there is much wisdom to be found in how Paul handled it. He was, after all, the most effective evangelist and defender of the faith in the early church. But one of the main reasons I am drawn to watching how he handled a question like that is that he was NOT one of the twelve disciples. In fact, the Bible is silent about whether he ever saw Jesus in the flesh. The first mention of him is at the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 when he stood there giving assent to the his killing. Unlike the disciples, he could not say, "I spent three years with Jesus. I walked and ate with him. I heard him teach. I saw the miracles." We don't know if he met Jesus before the crucifixion. We do know that whatever contact he had with the gospel made Paul extremely anti-Christian before he came to faith in Christ. So Paul makes a good example for us who never walked with Jesus when he was here in the flesh.

In Acts 17:16-34 Paul has the opportunity to speak the the Areopagus in Athens. This is the place where the philosophers and leading thinkers of the day met to talk and debate. It was arguably the philosophical center of the world at the time. Rome might have had more power and wealth, but Athens the way in ideas. And the Areopagus was the height of philosophical thought. Here's what happened:

Paul looked out at the skeptical audience. They were not common labourers. They were the top intellectuals in a highly intellectual city. They were always curious about new things, but they were also seasoned debaters. They liked nothing more than a good argument. Each person in the group was proud of their ability to think and not to be easily fooled by the vain thinking of the "uneducated" person.

They could talk endlessly about the different philosophers starting from Thales of Miletus through Socrates and Aristotle up to whatever thinker was currently popular.

They loved debating deep and important topics. Sometimes they debated the existence of god. Some were atheists, some deists, some pantheists, and others believed in multiple "small gods." They would argue about this until their voices grew hoarse, never really being able to come up with an argument that would end all debate.

They talked about the nature of good and evil and argued about ethical issues. Some were strict ascetics and lived austere lives. Others were hedonists. In general, they concluded that a person  should do whatever they wanted as long as they didn't hurt others and did nothing to "excess".

Sometimes they speculated about whether there was life after death and what sort of life it might be if there was. Some thought that there was no life after death. Others believed in reincarnation. Still others believed in some type of reward based after-life. None of them, of course, had actually died and come back to life to report about it, so most of their discussion was about they thought must rationally or logically take place. On this issue, they again were not able to reach a firm conclusion that they would all agree about. 

Their desire to debate and discuss different topics was endless. This group of intellectuals was always hungry for a new idea to discuss and debate. It was easy to be intimidated. Most new ideas were chewed up and spat out as unpalatable. It seemed like this group enjoyed the debate more than anything else. They delighted in proving other people wrong more than  they offering their own ideas.

Paul said a silent prayer, cleared his throat and began to address the intellectuals. He began by noting the variety of things that were worshipped in their city. Indeed, their city was full of different religions. Toleration of different religious opinions was esteemed by the intellectuals, but at the same time such toleration indicated that they didn't think any one religion to be better than another. 

He continued, "I am here to talk about the God that you do not know. This God does not live in a temple. In fact, he is the Creator. He made everything that exists. The sun, the moon and the stars are all works of his hands. He knows what lies at the bottom of the ocean and behind the farthest star.  He is like no other. You cannot serve him like the gods of the many religions in the city. He is the one who gives you life itself, he doesn't 'need' anything. He made all the nations. And he wants us to know him."

The intellectuals were curious and skeptical. A new idea? A new god? A Supreme God? Intriguing! What logical supports would the speaker give? He had not given any so far. Just statements floating in the air with nothing underneath them to hold them up.

The speaker, realising that as a foreigner he faced an uphill battle, knew he needed to make some type of connection with them. He began quoting some of the songs and poems of the day that pointed toward the existence of a supreme being. It would not prove anything, but maybe they would listen a little less skeptically to what he had to say. 

Then he shifted gears. "In the past, God overlooked the ignorance of mankind. But something has changed. God now commands everyone to repent and believe in him because he has fixed a day of judgment."

What was this babbler saying? A God who is going to judge them? What proof did he offer?

"God will judge the world with righteous judgment. He has given the authority to judge to someone and has demonstrated it to us by raising him from the dead."

When the intellectuals heard him talk about the resurrection of the dead, there were three reactions: some mocked, others wanted to talk more, and others believed.

We face a similar cultural situation today. So what can we learn about Paul's handling of the situation?

First, the center of Paul's argument was not philosophical, but historical. He did not try to out-reason the intellectuals. He stated the simple fact of the resurrection and its implications regarding the coming judgment. This is important because the gospel is not a new philosophy to be adopted. It is grounded in a historical event which has been amply documented. He wrote to the Corinthians that this message of the resurrection was of primary importance (1 Cor 15:3-7). God is not an idea to be debated: God has acted decisively in history.

Second, Paul was not afraid of using things in their culture that would help him deliver the message of the gospel. While great care can must be used because the "gods" of a culture are probably not the God of the Bible, there is much in a culture that can be used to help people related to and understand the gospel message. Use it when you can! The idea is not to simply sound hip or trendy, but to show help people listen to what you have to say. For example, a reference to a pop song crying for forgiveness can be used to talk about how we all feel a need to be purified from sin.

Third, he did not win everyone that day. In fact, the responses were divided into three categories. One message but three reactions. This is the way it almost always is, even with a highly effective evangelist. We must remember that the key component of this episode is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws some people to faith while others remained hardened. This reality means that we can have confidence to share the gospel because it is the Holy Spirit's job to take the message and bring people to salvation. He can overcome the objections of the most skeptical intellectual.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that fundamentally we are called to be witnesses and not debaters (Acts 1:8). The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18-30). While those who are perishing will at times mock the gospel, we must not be ashamed of it because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). So let us share the gospel message and leave the results to God!

Of course, the next question is whether the resurrection really happened. How we know it did will be the subject of next week's blog article. 

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