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Reasons to Believe: An Interview With Doug Groothuis

Philosopher Douglas Groothuis spent more than 8 years producing his 752-page tome Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Here’s an interview hitting some highlights.

Q. Your book has amazing breadth, covering everything from the nature of truth, to arguments for God, to evolution versus creation, to the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, to the challenge of Islam, to the problem of evil – and that’s just for starters! Yet it’s quite readable; you avoid delving too deeply into technical issues while hitting all the key points. I can see this as an invaluable reference book, but I could also envision interested Christians simply reading it cover to cover. How do you hope your book will be used?

A. I tried to make the book accessible, inviting, and intriguing to the thoughtful reader, Christian or unbeliever. But I also wanted to take readers into the material with sufficient depth that they might fathom the force of the arguments for Christianity as objectively true, rational, and pertinent to all of life. There are hundreds of footnotes and a glossary to take the reader further into the intellectual and spiritual adventure of apologetics.

This is not a reference book per se; it’s not an encyclopedia or dictionary of apologetics. Rather, it is, to steal a phrase from Charles Darwin’s account of his Origin of Species, “one long argument,” with many facts, facets, and features. Every chapter marches ahead to the beat of the same apologetic drummer; they form a cumulative case argument for what matters most: Christian truth. However, one could also use the chapter titles and indices for reference purposes.

Christian Apologetics can be used for personal growth in apologetic prowess (1 Peter 3:15-16) or as a textbook at the college or seminary level. The intellectually inclined non-Christian should find the book challenging and interesting as well. Of course, I hope that many will confess Christ as Lord as a result of reading the book.

Q. Absolutely! What camp of apologetics are you most comfortable in and why?

A. I use the apologetic method called the cumulative case approach. Instead of resting the case for Christianity on only one or two arguments, I draw evidence from science, history, philosophy, and other areas. All these arguments converge on Christian theism as the best explanation of the most profound issues in life: Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the basis of morality? What is our destiny? And so on. I offer Christianity as a worldview hypothesis that should be tested according to several rational criteria or principles. Other worldviews – particularly materialism and pantheism – are tested by the same criteria and are found wanting.

Q. You talk in your book about searching for truth in postmodern times. You once did a book called Truth Decay. How serious is the erosion of truth these days?

A. Many apologetic books, for all their strengths, do not address directly the question of the meaning or definition of truth. However, the problem of “truth decay” (the condition whereby objective truth is deemed unreal or unknowable) continues to pollute the landscape, because of the influence of postmodernism and the manifold distractions of the contemporary world.

In light of this, the book includes two chapters about the nature of truth: that it is objective and desirable to know. I argue for the correspondence view of truth (a true statement agrees with reality) and that a virtuous and serious person should pursue truth about what matters most, instead of settling for lesser goods. If people give up on knowing objective reality, our apologetic or evangelistic efforts will be nothing more than beating the air.

Q. By the way, thanks for your positive mentions of my books! However, I noticed a footnote in which you gently chide me for not including the ontological argument for the existence of God in any of my Case books. Do you find this argument helpful for apologists? Certainly atheist Richard Dawkins has been dismissive of it.

A. Thank you for the good humor about this. I didn’t really chide you for your omission of this tremendous argument; I simply mentioned that you did not address it. And actually that’s fine, given the topic of the books that you’ve written.

The ontological argument is hard to summarize. Please read my whole chapter—and drink as much coffee as necessary to get through it! But the ontological argument is the Mercedes Benz of apologetics for two reasons: It is very classy and impressive, but it is also hard to purchase, given the price involved.

The argument is impressive because it concludes that God must exist (his non-existence is impossible) and that God is a Perfect Being without defects and possessing all positive qualities. The argument form is deductive, which means that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. It trades on the notion of God as a perfect or maximal being (this is a very special category of being), along with certain rational principles.

Many find the argument obscure, but I believe the version I present is (somewhat) approachable and convincing. The ontological argument appeals to the more philosophically astute Christian and non-Christian, considering the level of difficulty. Most everyday apologetics need not address it. In fact, my book could omit the argument entirely and still be a compelling case for Christianity.

Q. What’s the strongest argument in the arsenal of atheists these days? And why does it fall short?

A. That’s a big question. Different atheists will use different arguments, but they often confront Christians with two things: (1) Darwinism has refuted the idea of Designer and so defeats Christianity (and every other form of theism). They claim that undirected, purely material causes and entities can explain all of biology. (2) The existence of the amount of evil in the world destroys the idea that there is a God who is all-good and all-powerful. No such God would allow this to happen. This is called the problem of evil.

I address (1) in chapters 13 and 14 of Christian Apologetics. To put it into a nutshell: Darwinism is terribly overrated scientifically. Darwinists usually presupposes a materialistic worldview—this is their philosophy, not something derived from science itself—and then interpret everything in biology according to those categories. In other words, “What my net don’t catch, ain’t fish.”

But once we admit intelligent design as a legitimate category of explanation, we find that Darwinism loses its persuasive power as a comprehensive explanation of the biosphere. In fact, Darwinism cannot explain the existence of molecular machines (such as the bacterial flagellum) or the information in DNA code. Nor can it even present a compelling case that all life evolved from a common ancestor.

In addition, my book builds what I hope is a strong cumulative case for Christian theism before addressing the vexing problem of evil in the final chapter. First I consider “dead ends” to explain the fact of evil in the world. Every worldview—and not just Christianity—needs to give an account of the meaning of evil and how to deal with it.

So every worldview has to answer “the problem of evil.” I argue that atheism has no intellectual resources to bring to bear on the problem. It cannot explain the very existence of evil, since it lacks a transcendent and personal standard for good and evil, nor can it give any hope for how to wrestle with evil. This is because all the atheist can say is (to put it politely): “Stuff happens.”

However, Christianity, while challenged by the fact of evil, is not overwhelmed by it. Apart from the problem of evil, we can stand on the foundation of natural theology. There are compelling arguments for, among other things, a First Cause who designed the universe and who is the source of moral law and meaning. Moreover, we find historically reliable documents that speak of Jesus Christ as God incarnate—one who vindicated himself through his matchless life, death, and resurrection. Thus, we do not stand before the problem of evil intellectually naked. Rather, we are girded in strong rational armor.

The Christian answer to the problem of evil is that while God is sovereign, some of God’s creatures (angelic and humans) brought evil into the world through their rebellion. God did not create evil. However, as an all-wise God, God uses evil for greater goods that would not be achievable otherwise. Further, God proves his love and goodness by experiencing the worst possible evil through the crucifixion of Jesus, Christ, God, the Son. Christ’s resurrection three days later stamps history and eternity with the verdict that good (that is, God) wins out over evil in the end.

Q. You offer a compelling case for the resurrection of Jesus. What’s the strongest counter-argument to him rising from the dead? And why does that alternative fail?

A. None of the counter-arguments are as rationally strong as the claim that Jesus left an empty tomb and rose from the dead in space-time actuality. The naturalistic accounts all fail to explain key elements of what we know from history.

However, in recent years, the hallucination theory has generated the most attention, as Gary Habermas has pointed out. This theory affirms that Jesus did not objectively rise from the dead; instead, his followers subjectively hallucinated a resurrection and subsequently built their movement on this delusion. While this counter-argument may be “the best of the bad,” it is still very bad indeed.

First, hallucinations are not group phenomena, but rather individual experiences. But we have well-attested records that many people in their right minds observed the risen Jesus at the same time, as well as other individual appearances (as to Paul).

Second, if many people were deluded about Jesus and began a movement in his name, the Roman government could have put a stop to the young Jesus movement by producing his corpse publicly. They had both the means and the motive to do so. But we have no record of anything like that.

Third, Jesus’ followers did not expect him to rise from the dead. This was not part of their theology and they did not understand Jesus when he made reference to this fact before his resurrection. N.T Wright strongly argues for this. But hallucinations usually involve some form of wish fulfillment: people strongly desire something, and then hallucinate about it. This does not fit the objective historical evidence about Jesus’ followers at all.

Q. There’s so much wacky anti-Christian material circulating on the Internet these days – Jesus never even lived, the entire Jesus story was plagiarized from earlier mythology, and so forth. As a scholar, don’t you find that aggravating? How do Christians counteract this avalanche of misleading and ill-supported material?

This claim was refuted long ago, and few if any serious New Testament scholars (religious or not) hold it today. But it is being revived in some (mostly unscholarly) circles. The best refutation of this is found chapter 19 of my book, which is written by the distinguished New Testament scholar, and my colleague, Dr. Craig Blomberg. But let me give a few points.

The first error committed by the idea that Jesus did not exist is the assumption that the Gospels fit the category of pagan mythology (which is fiction). They do not. They make plentiful references to the political, cultural, and geographic realities of their day—and these can be checked out by historical writings of the day outside of the Gospels themselves. Further, the Gospel accounts to not read like myths in their literary form, as C.S. Lewis and others have noted.

Second, the biography of Jesus is not a cobbling together of various ideas from previously existing mythologies. On the contrary, the myths that critics refer to —particularly about “mystery religions”—very likely appeared after the life of Christ, not before.

Third, some reject the existence of Jesus because the Gospels report the miracles of Jesus. Since the skeptics claim that miracles cannot or do not happen, we then have to junk the whole story of Jesus even existing. However, if the argument for God’s existence is strong (and I devote 200 pages of the book to this rational cause), then miracles are possible, since a supernatural God exists who could perform them. Then the question becomes historical: Do we have credible and diverse sources that miracles occurred? In the case of the Gospels, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Q. In some ways, I believe we’re on the cusp of a golden era of Christian apologetics. How do you see the future of apologetics? How might it change over the next twenty years? Do you see an increased interest among young people?

A. I agree that apologetics is flourishing today; so is very high-level philosophy done by Christian thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and many others. For this, I give thanks to God. I believe apologetics has a bright future if:

  1. Christians realize that apologetic engagement is a divine command (and spiritual privilege), not just an option for Christian eggheads. (I argue for this in chapter two, “The Biblical Basis for Apologetics.”)
  2. Christians take apologetics seriously before the face of God and develop the life of the mind to that end. It is part of the mission of God to make himself known and worshipped before the nations. Christians needs to be spiritually formed to develop a competent, confident, courageous, compassionate, and creative faith, one that virtuously engages the world of ideas for the case of Christ and his eternal Kingdom.
  3. We incorporate apologetics into every area of the church, religious institutions, and daily life. Apologetics should resound from every evangelical pulpit in the land; it should be a vital part of all Christian education at every level; a class (or classes) in apologetics should be required at all Christian institutions of learning, but particularly at the high school, college, and seminary level. Sadly, many evangelical seminaries do not require apologetics for the Masters of Divinity students. This is a crime. I’m thankful that Denver Seminary is not in that category. This term, I have 100 students in two sections of Defending Christian Faith—and I love it.
  4. Christians must bring apologetics to unbelievers! Sometimes Christians debate apologetic issues among themselves instead of “taking it to the streets” (this is the title of the conclusion to Christian Apologetics). We must inject apologetic ideas where ever and when ever it is prudent to do so: in books published by secular publishers (such as my books, On Jesus and On Pascal); in op-ed pieces in newspapers (as long as those continue to exist); on blogs; on Facebook, in public debates and lectures; especially in personal conversations (we need to have non-Christian friends); and anywhere else that the Spirit of Truth leads. (I go into more detail in my essay, “Christian Apologetics Manifest,” which is on line in several places.)
  5. Denver Seminary is launching a new degree in Christian Apologetics and Ethics in the fall of 2012. We hope to educate many Christians in this area in order to fulfill the apologetic call.

Q. We’re seeing more and more debates between Christian apologists and atheists. Is this a good development, in your opinion?

A. These debates are fruitful for the mission of God if the Christians are bright enough and well-prepared for the debate. I salute the stellar work done in this over decades by William Lane Craig, for example. He sets the gold standard for us in this regard. Some high-level atheists, in fact, are afraid to debate him (although they never admit to this). Apologetics debates require much preparation and are quite demanding, spiritually and intellectually. One should venture in thoughtlessly. We are representing Jesus Christ before the watching world.

Q. Thanks for your comments, Doug. One last question. You blog under the name The Constructive Curmudgeon. What’s the genesis of that title? Do you see yourself as a curmudgeon?

A. It came to me in a flash in 2005, and I went with it. Many think that curmudgeons must be rude, fussy, and impossible people—and many are. But my take is that someone can be a curmudgeon in a constructive or positive way.

A curmudgeon is one who is finicky about facts, who brooks no idle words, and who is willing to go against the world for the sake of the world. This approach is especially apt for the Christian, who knows that the world is fallen and in need of critique and restoration. One can be a stickler about truth, rational argument, grammar, history, and so on, in order to improve one’s life and the lives of others. I use this forum to discuss apologetics, culture, music, art, and much more. Please join me.

Douglas Groothuis, who earned his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oregon, is a professor at Denver Seminary and author of ten books. He also has published two dozen articles in various academic journals. His blog is found at The Constructive Curmudgeon.

This article is drawn from Lee Strobel’s free email newsletter Investigating Faith. Each issue features in-depth articles about Christianity, faith, apologetics, and the Bible. Subscribe to have each new issue of Investigating Faith sent directly to your inbox!