Henry David Thoreau famously observed how the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. The late theologian Carl F. H. Henry took it a step further when he argued most people don’t really know where they are or where they are going. It’s as if they “cower at the bottom of a well run dry.” 1Carl F. H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief: The Rutherford Lectures (Crossway, 1990), 17. The thrust of this essay is basically a summary of Henry’s important book.
Imagine what it would be like to sit at the bottom of a dry well. There is no water to quench your thirst and no light to help you see. You can’t explain where you are, and unless someone reaches in to save you, you’ve no hope of escape. This is the condition of most people today, though they’d never admit it.
This is what life is like without faith in the triune God of the Bible.
Sure, many people will claim meaning for their lives. Yes, quite a few will assert that they are content. They’ll even argue that their life has purpose: to do good to others, to leave a legacy for the next generation, or to generally make the world a better place. When pressed, however, they are at a loss to explain why they should do good. They can’t prove their vision for a “better” world is any better than someone else’s vision. They are, as Henry argued, at the bottom of a well. They need help.
As Christians, we have both the light to show them the way (God’s Word) and the rope to pull them out (God’s Spirit). The Message we have is their only hope; nonetheless, we are often slow to speak.
WHY ARE WE SLOW TO SPEAK?
It can be easier to speak of Jesus in Middle Eastern countries where a belief in God is nearly universal. I’ve spent some time in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—both Muslim-majority countries—where conversations about God’s ways in the world flow easily. People are excited to talk about religious differences. Theological discussions are fairly normal.
In most of America, it’s not like that. Unbelievers here are skeptical of anything that seems supernatural. If they do believe in “God,” it’s usually little more than a bland confidence that some Being is doing something good they can’t quite understand. And so, like a batter with his eye glued to the pitch, they focus on what can be tried and tested and measured in a lab. God may be their hope, but science is their king.
And this is why many believers have a hard time speaking boldly about the risen Christ. We aren’t experts in science. We know we believe, but we aren’t sure why we believe. Our faith may seem too simple or flimsy to withstand a heated conversation about the creation of the earth or the origin of evil. And so, we put away our light and resign ourselves to watching our neighbors languish in the bottom of a well.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The fact of the matter is everyone has faith in something he cannot prove. We all come to the table of life with certain assumptions, certain presuppositions we rely on to make sense of life. When a Christian becomes convinced his presuppositions are superior—the most plausible—he will speak more freely, naturally, and joyfully about what matters most to him; the gospel of Jesus Christ.
EVERYBODY HAS PRESUPPOSITIONS
Everybody has presuppositions. Life would be pretty hard to live without them! I’m pretty sure the sun is going to rise tomorrow (yes, I know, it doesn’t technically rise, but you know what I mean). However, can I prove the sun will rise tomorrow? Can I be sure that something cataclysmic won’t happen while I’m in bed to change the course of history? No, of course I can’t prove it. But I’m so certain the sun will rise I’m willing to stake my life on it.
Let me get a little more technical for a moment. We are all grateful for scientists who find the breakthroughs that make our lives easier. I love the fact that I can type out this article on a tiny computer that just a few decades ago would have filled a whole room. Science is amazing! But science, as Henry noted, “must routinely take for granted what it cannot prove.” 2Ibid., 43. For example, researchers can’t prove we live in an intelligible universe, a universe that will respond consistently to the batteries of tests they impose on it. They assume certain laws of nature—laws they say they are certain of—and they act accordingly.
And, for the most part, we can say their assumptions are reasonable. Just as it is reasonable for me to assume the sun is going to rise in the morning, it is reasonable for them to assume electrons will move a certain way under certain conditions without being able to actually see an electron. That’s right, they can’t see electrons but that doesn’t make electrons any less real.
WE CAN’T SEE GOD BUT WE KNOW HE EXISTS
A Christian is on solid ground when he asserts, without any proof, that God exists. In other words, a Christian may not be able to see God, but that doesn’t make him any less real.
Consider for a moment the way the biblical authors talk about God. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In the beginning, before there was any-thing there was God. Before there were elephants, there was God. Before there was water, there was God. Before there was time, you got it, God was. God was and is and always will be. It’s no coincidence the Bible begins with the bold assertion of God’s existence. He is the one thing in all of life that requires no explanation.
This is why there is no such thing as an atheist. Of course, many people claim to be atheists but, I would argue that deep down in their soul they aren’t convinced of their own faithlessness. Everyone, Henry argues, “knows instinctively and intuitively that God does in fact exist.” 3Ibid., 58. The sixteenth-century Swiss theologian, John Calvin, put it beautifully, “God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.” 4John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.iii.1.
There are certainly lots of good reasons to believe in God. Theists throughout the ages have suggested tons of arguments that make it highly probable God exists. In fact, these arguments are so good that skeptics have gone to great lengths to postulate theories that help them explain a universe without God.
The fine-tuning hypothesis includes the argument that the earth is so perfectly situated around the sun that were it to be moved slightly in any other direction it could not sustain life. The odds of this are extraordinary. In order to decrease these odds, skeptics propose another theory: the existence of trillions of universes. This multi-verse theory has no scientific evidence to support it, but for some, it conveniently increases the odds of there being at least one universe with a single planet that can sustain life as we know it.
Multiverse theory aside, the fine-tuning hypothesis makes the existence of an Intelligent Designer seem very likely. Nonetheless, we can do better than settle with the high probability that there is a God. It is intellectually credible to presuppose God’s existence. We can, like Paul, assert with certainty: “The God who made the world and everything in it” is “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). We can agree with Paul who said God made himself plain to all humanity (Romans 1:19).
And this isn’t blind faith! There is simply no better explanation for the order of the universe, the agreement about what is good, the existence of love, and the hunger for purpose than the existence of God. C. S. Lewis famously suggested, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Again, it’s not blind faith to assert God is, it’s the best explanation of who we are and why we were made.
BORROWING FROM A CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW
What’s truly remarkable in our modern and increasingly post-Christian era is how many people reject the truths of the Bible and yet live as if they are true. Writing thirty years ago, Henry said, “the younger generation today scarcely realizes the staggering debt that Western thought owes to the Biblical heritage.” 5Toward a Recovery, 17. It remains true today.
Most of our non-Christian neighbors rely on ideas they cannot justify. They agree all human life is sacred. Sure, they may hold strongly to the belief that an embryo is not a human but, generally speaking, they advocate for the good of all they consider human. They believe history is linear; it is moving in a certain direction. There is a start and a finish. A linear view of history may not be universally accepted, but my simple point is that this is a Judeo-Christian idea accepted (with no proof) by most of our non-Christian neighbors. Perhaps most importantly and with few exceptions, they agree the universe has a purpose. They may not know what that purpose is, but they are absolutely convinced there is meaning to life, and some will even devote themselves to finding out what this meaning is.
In his book, Making Sense of God, pastor and author Tim Keller points out that there is an unstoppable desire in our hearts to find meaning. And even if we refuse to find meaning in the God of the Bible, most everyone strives to make meaning for themselves. They’ll find something to live for, even if it’s for their own satisfaction. And here’s why: a meaningless life is uglier than anything. Keller puts it well:
If this life is all there is, and there is no God or life beyond this material world, then it will not ultimately matter whether you are a genocidal maniac or an altruist; it won’t matter whether you fight for hunger in Africa or are incredibly cruel and greedy and starving for power. In the end, what you do will make no difference whatsoever. 6Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking, 2016), 66.
Occasionally you may run into someone who feels this way. But the remarkable thing, as Henry points out, is most people don’t! In other words, most people borrow from the storyline of the Bible to infuse meaning into their existence. They fully believe (again, without any proof) that there is a purpose to life. And try as they might to distance themselves from the Bible, skeptics of God will fight tooth and nail to cling to what we can only describe as a biblical ethic. Unbelievers retain, as Henry argued, “an agenda of social concerns involving universal justice, human rights, ecological matters, and compassion for the poor and weak.” 7Toward a Recovery, 24.
In short, even as they condemn Christianity as unjust, many of our unbelieving neighbors fight for justice from the midst of their waterless well. They drink deeply from the fountain of Christian faith while dismissing the God from whom faith comes.
Why believe in the God of the Bible? You might just as well ask why we breathe the air around us. What else can we do?
The apostle Peter happened to be with Jesus when a number of disciples abandoned their faith. Jesus’s claims about himself seemed unreasonable to them. They wanted a Messiah who healed the sick and fed the hungry, but they weren’t too keen on Jesus calling himself the bread of heaven whom they must eat if they wanted to live (John 6:58).
Peter didn’t understand Jesus’ words either; but he knew Jesus, and he trusted him, and when Jesus asked if he, too, would leave, Peter asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68). I don’t suppose Peter could prove to the men and women running away that Jesus was the Messiah. Time would show that Peter struggled to believe it himself. At that moment, Peter had no better explanation for life than Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, he refused to budge.
2,000 years later, not much has changed for the Christian. Sure, we can marshal arguments that make a strong case for the existence of God and the reliability and authority of the 66 books of the Bible. We can and should lay out arguments for the historical reliability of the four gospels and the credibility of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. We can even propose that there is no more beautiful narrative than that of Jesus taking on flesh, dwelling among us, living a perfect life, dying as our substitute, and rising to return again as the Judge of all. There are 1,001 wonderful reasons to believe the gospel even if we can’t prove it. 8For a helpful introduction to apologetics see, Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction to Christian Witness (Zondervan, 2018).
But it’s also worth asking, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” What other presupposition is as compelling as the fact that there is a God and he has spoken in his Word? It’s because of God and his gospel that the Christian lives not at the bottom of the well but at the top of a mountain gazing from afar at the new heavens and the new earth. It’s because of the truth revealed in Scripture that the believer walks in the light, always sure of where he is going even when the path bends. It’s because God is even when unseen that the believer continues to love in a world filled with hate.
By all means, speak up to your neighbors stuck at the bottom of the well. Point out all the things they believe without being able to prove and make your case that faith in the God of Scripture isn’t blind, it’s reasonable; more reasonable, in fact, than faith in anything else.
|￪1||Carl F. H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief: The Rutherford Lectures (Crossway, 1990), 17. The thrust of this essay is basically a summary of Henry’s important book.|
|￪4||John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.iii.1.|
|￪5||Toward a Recovery, 17.|
|￪6||Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking, 2016), 66.|
|￪7||Toward a Recovery, 24.|
|￪8||For a helpful introduction to apologetics see, Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction to Christian Witness (Zondervan, 2018).|