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Doubt…Surprise…Certainty

by Alex Wilson

(Reprinted from the 1996 November/December Edition of Word and Work)

Must a person commit intellectual suicide to be a Christian? Sometimes we give the impression, whether we mean to or not, that Christians must stifle their minds and play ostrich with difficult questions about their faith. Here’s an example, told by Charles Hummel, who works with college students. One of them told Hummel he was an atheist, and then explained why. ‘Several years ago, when I was eleven, I questioned my Sunday school teacher about the reliability of Old Testament miracles. She said rather curtly that they were to be accepted, not discussed. When I kept asking, she told me either to be quiet and believe them or leave. So I left.”

That was the beginning of this fellow’s pilgrimage to atheism. He had become convinced that doubters are neither wanted nor welcome in the church and that you have to check your reasoning at the door and be prepared to accept uncritically whatever is asserted to be true.

Doubts may spring from one of two different attitudes: unwillingness to believe (because if the Bible is true, then we should surrender to the God it reveals), or because of questioning and confusion due to seeming contradictions or the accusations made against the Bible in the name of science, etc. The first type of doubter is willing, and perhaps eager, to be convinced by evidence, but until such evidence is seen, he is perplexed and bewildered, wondering how to solve the problems in his mind.

To doubters in the first century, the apostles offered firsthand, eye-witness evidence: see Acts 2:32, 3:14-15, 4:33, 5:30-32, 10: 39-41, 13:30-31, 2nd Peter 1:16-18, 1st John 1:1-4. And the foundation events of Christianity about which they witnessed – especially Christ’s resurrection – can even in our day be historically examined and evaluated. Through the centuries there have been men who have done this very thing, often with surprising results. Let’s look at some examples.

  1. During the 1700s, two English deists, Gilbert West and Lord Lyttleton attempted to disprove Christianity. West set out to prove that Christ’s resurrection was a hoax, while Lyttleton sought to overthrow the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. After some time, the two men published the conclusions of their study. West boldly declared that Jesus must have indeed risen from death and Lyttleton wrote a strong defense of Paul’s conversion experience. West’s book had the title: Observations on the History and Evidences of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  2. Lew Wallace lived during the mid-1800s. During the War Between the States, he became a general. He was a close friend of Robert Ingersoll, the famous skeptic and opponent of Christianity. Together they set out to write a book exposing the ‘myths and superstitions of the Bible’. Wallace traveled to the leading libraries of Europe and the U.S. to gather information. His research continued for two years. But one day he fell to his knees and cried out, “My Lord and my God!” The truth he had doubted had revealed Him and had overcome Wallace’s sincere opposition. Later he wrote ‘Ben Hur’, the famous novel about the times of Christ.
  3. At the end of the 1800s, Sir William Ramsey was an outstanding historian and archeologist in England. He, too, sought to discredit the Bible. He felt confident he could reveal enough errors in it to prove that it was not trustworthy. Since Luke’s writings contain so many historical and geographic details – such as names of specific persons, paces, and events, Ramsey made the Gospel of Luke his special target for study. Imagine his astonishment when he discovered that Luke was incredibly accurate! Ramsey could not believe that such a painstaking and reliable historian could simply have invented the story of Jesus’ resurrection or else have been fooled by others into believing it. Thus, convinced that Jesus indeed did arise from death and was divine, Ramsey became a Christian. In following years he wrote several books about the historical background of Biblical events.
  4. Similar discoveries have been made in our own times. Another Englishman, Frank Morison, as a university student, felt that no enlightened modern person could believe in miracles. He was a regular church-goer but doubted many of Christianity’s doctrines pertaining to the supernatural. Wanting to refine Christianity by removing its unbelievable arts and thus harmonize it with modern learning, he too, decided to write. But serious writing requires research and thought, and his honest investigation confronted him with the living Christ. So in the book he authored, ‘Who Moved the Stone?’, the first chapter is entitled, ‘The Book That Refused to be Written.” In it he explains that his original intention of refuting the resurrection had to give way before the overwhelming evidence he found. The rest of the book presents that evidence to the reader.
  5. One of the most famous twentieth century authors is C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), professor of literature at Cambridge. Until he was past thirty, he was an atheist. Because of that fact, after his conversion he became an ‘apostle to the skeptics’, powerfully presenting Christ to modern doubters. In ‘Mere Christianity’ he points out the only logical alternatives regarding Christ in light of His staggering personal claims: A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on the level with a man who says he’s a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of Hell; you must make your choice. Either this was and is the Son of God or a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a demon or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But don’t come with any patronizing nonsense about His being ‘only a great moral teacher’. He hasn’t left that alternative open to us.

A Sad and Common Contrast.

In contrast to these honest doubters who were open to truth when they found it multitudes of people refuse to search for it. And if by mistake they bump into it, they run the other way. Winston Churchill observed, “So men stumble onto the truth, but they quickly pick themselves up and go on as though nothing happened.” And the inspired John wrote in his gospel, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather then light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19-20).

 

 

In his booklet, ‘Have You Considered Him’ Wilbur Smith refers to a clear example of his fatal attitude. Gamaliel Bradford, one of the most distinguished biographers of modern time, confessed that he was afraid to read the New Testament for fear it might prove that he was wrong, and would all have to be changed, and that he did not want. In his journal for September 8, 1921, in his fifty-seventh year, Bradford wrote: “I do not read the New Testament for fear of its’ awakening a storm of anxiety and self-reproach and doubt and dread of having taken the wrong path. Of having been a traitor to the plain and simple God. Not that I do not know perfectly well that no reading would make me believe any more. But, of, what agonies of fret and worry it would give me, for I should be able neither to believe nor to disbelieve nor to let it alone.” And yet in this same journal, under date of February 19, 1919, he cried out, “Who will tell me something of God? I know nothing about Him whatsoever.” Had he only opened his New Testament and considered the life and teachings of Jesus, His death and resurrection, with the same spirit of honesty, with the same desire to discover the truth that possessed him as he approached the study of the many great men of history, into whose lives he saw so deeply and accurately, he would have found God gloriously revealed in Christ, His Son.

We Christians should not fear having our beliefs investigated. In fact, we should encourage doubters to do that very thing. But they, and we, should be certain that we really do want to know the truth. Even if it surprises us and even if it hurts.

 

Alex Wilson is co-minister of the Portland Avenue Church of Christ, Louisville, KY

                                                    and a former editor of Word and Work.

 




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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33