Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

A letter to agnostics, skeptics, and atheists

"For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." -1 Cor. 2:2

I don't know whether I know you personally and invited you to this site, or whether you have been brought here through the wonder of Google, Bing, or Ask Jeeves (Ask Jeeves?). But whoever you are, I would like to welcome you here. I have been a Christian for almost ten years, but only became interested in apologetics after having my faith challenged on a blog run by an agnostic friend. Although reading the work of the New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris has certainly been difficult at times, I can honestly say that my investigations have only served to strengthen my faith in Jesus Christ. My hope is that on this site, you will similarly be challenged to question your presuppostions, to reexamine your arguments, and ultimately to investigate the claims made almost two thousands years ago by a a poor, itinerant teacher from Nazareth.

In this short letter, I'd like to do a few things to clear a path for you. I want to offer you first an apology and second a challenge.

In reading the work of the Neoatheists, and in talking to many agnostics and skeptics, I've found that very few were raised in some kind of religious vacuum. Very few of them were the children of free-thinking, deeply skeptical parents. Instead, almost all of them grew up in families with at least some religious beliefs and practices. Consequently, their atheism does not derive purely from intellectual considerations, but is often mingled with deep personal disappointments, tragedies, and betrayals. Many of them were raised in religious traditions which looked down on any kind of inquiry, which were openly hostile to questions, and which were radically un-reflective about their own beliefs. Others were appalled by the hypocrisy they witnessed in the church. They saw people who were living lives that were utterly opposed to their professed beliefs. Finally, some were personally injured by a professing believer, whether a father or mother, a pastor, or a close friend. To all of them and to all of you, I want to apologize. It is indeed a scandal and a tragedy the way that many of you have been treated. It is not right. If those who have wronged you have not sought your forgiveness, I hope that I can do so partially in their stead.

At this point, it is common for a Christian apologist to disavow the faith of those who have behaved wickedly and claim that true Christians would never do such things. However, I can't do this. Any look at the history of the church, or my own personal history, shows numerous acts of which I am rightfully ashamed. Does this mean I am not a Christian? No. It means that I am a radically sinful human being who needs equally radical forgiveness and transformation.

I do not want to minimize the objective, external changes that happen when someone becomes a Christian. I can personally testify (as can some of my close friends) that when I put my faith in Jesus Christ, my whole life was radically transformed; I became more loving, more joyful, more patient, and more faithful than I had been. If these characteristics are not present in our lives at all, then we should seriously consider whether we have truly put our trust in Jesus in the first place. At the same time, when I became a Christian, I became much more aware of my own tendency to selfishness, immorality, idolatry, pride, and every kind of wickedness. Yes, Christians do see objective changes in their lives. But a Christian always falls desperately short of the standard to which God calls them. As Martin Luther observed five centuries ago, a Christian is "simul justus et peccator" - at once righteous and a sinner. Unlike other religions, Christianity does not teach that God loves and accepts us because we are good, but that He loves and accepts us on the basis of what Jesus did for us on the cross in spite of the fact that we are bad. It is this grace, this unmerited favor, that transforms us.

My challenge to you is two-fold. First, you may have been deeply hurt by Christians in ways that are horrible and inexcusable. But I think it is very likely that you have hurt others in ways that are possibly equally horrible and inexcusable. If I slap my mother in the face, it will not mitigate the wrong I have done her to point out that my brother also slapped her a few days ago. Jesus in no way excuses the wrong done to us. Indeed, the fact that God is just means that He abhors evil, hatred, and immorality in all its forms. But He wants us to recognize that we too are in need of forgiveness. Appealing to the wickedness of others does not really do anything to expiate our guilt.

Second, rather than focusing on the behavior of Christians, it is far more important to focus instead on the truth claims of Jesus himself. Why? The short answer is that the behavior of professing Christians is only tangentially relevant to the truth of Jesus' claims. Either Jesus was a real historical human being who taught the things recorded in the gospels, died on the cross for the sins of the world, and was raised to life to show that we have been forgiven or he was not. These statements are either objectively true or objectively false. If these claims are objectively false, then it does not matter how kind, loving and compassionate his followers are. If these claims are objectively true, then even the misbehavior of his followers doesn't make them false. Although there is much for Christians to be ashamed of, there is also much that God has done through followers of Jesus. For instance, our church in Durham has active ministries to elementary schools, single mothers, refugees, and the homeless. I suspect (I hope?) that even the most hardened atheist knows at least one or two Christians (and Muslims and Buddhists) who are loving and gentle and compassionate. Does this make the claims of Christianity (or Islam or Buddhism) true? Absolutely not. But it does mean that we ought not to immediately dismiss the truth claims of any religion as a consequence of the behavior of its followers. Jesus does not call you primarily to Christianity. He calls you first and foremost to himself.

In closing, I hope that the material you find on this site will be helpful for you. I encourage you to email me at neil -AT- shenvi.org if you have any questions, concerns, or criticisms of this site. Many of the essays that I've written began as email conversations. My corresponce with my friend Mark, which now spans several years and at least twenty thousand words, attests to my willingness to spend a great deal of time in email conversations. I especially hope you'll contact me if there is any factual information on this site which you believe to be in error; if you email me, I will correct it as soon as possible. Lastly, I highly recommend Tim Keller's book The Reason for God, which is one of the best books I've ever read. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here, but if you have $11, the book is worth the investment.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately good news. It is the news that God "was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them." This is the central message of Christianity: that God so loved the world, that he gave up his One and Only Son, so that we could be forgiven and raised up to new life. My prayer is that it is this message which you will wrestle with, knowing that as you do so it is God himself who is calling you.

Sincerely,

Neil


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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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