Ep. 098: Still a Christian (Despite the Arguments)
When it comes to science, philosophy, and reason, does it make sense to believe in Christianity? Well, yes. Justin Brierley joins us on the show this week to talk about his book Unbelievable? Why After Ten Years of Talking With Atheists I’m Still a Christian.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Justin Brierley. Justin is most popularly known as being the host of Unbelievable? – a Christian apologetics radio and podcast show based in England that’s been on for quite some time now. So it’s a great show – we’ll get into more of that in just a moment. Justin was also on indoubt last year around this time, so it’s great to have you back on this show again Justin.
Great to be here Isaac, thanks for having me.
Yeah for sure. For those that are a little bit unfamiliar with who you are, not the show but just you, what are a few things you can tell us about who Justin is?
I am a Christian, that’s a good starting point, and I’ve been working for Premier, which is a christian media organization here in the UK for 15 years now believe it or not. And my role now has grown to the point where I actually do have a number of different hats here and those include obviously the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast and its associated conference and now the book. I also actually spend my time editing a monthly magazine called Premier Christianity Magazine, which is kind of the equivalent in the USA I suppose of Christianity Today, plus doing some other bits and pieces for our radio and video site. I’m married to a church minister and we have four children together and I’m very much involved in my local church as well in terms of the worship and that kind of thing so yeah it’s a busy life really.
That’s so cool. Do you mind briefly kind of sharing with us what exactly Unbelievable? the show is for people that maybe haven’t heard it?
Well the Unbelievable? show has been in existence for, well it will be nearly 12 years now. It’s 12 years towards the end of this year. On podcast you can go back just about 10 years now in the podcast archive and so a lot of people have been listening right from the start but we’re constantly picking up new listeners both on the radio station and as a podcast and really
the show has always existed to bring together Christians and Non-Christians for dialogue and debate.
To help Christians think through their faith, understand the objections of others how they might want to think about presenting their faith to people who don’t share it. Also, hopefully to encourage Non-Christians to think about the claims of Christianity whether they’re true and whether they can be supported.
Yes, now that’s good and like you kind of say in your book as well you have obviously a huge majority that are Christian listeners but you also have people of other faiths listening to your show and they appreciate it.
Absolutely. And of course many people of no faith in the sense that there’s lots of atheists and agnostics who listen to the program. Obviously on the radio side it is a Christian radio station so the vast majority of people who listen via the radio station are Christian listeners but really on the online and by the podcast and so on, that’s where we are seeing so many Non-Christian engaging with the show, which is very encouraging.
For sure. All right so Justin you’ve just released a brand new book called Unbelievable? Why After Ten Years of Talking With Atheists I’m Still a Christian. It’s great title. So you go into more detail in the first chapter of your book but I’m wondering if you could briefly explain the story of how you entered into your position on Unbelievable? I just think it’s kind of interesting and cool. I don’t think this book maybe would have been on your mind 10, 15 years ago. You wouldn’t think, “This is the book I’m going to write.” So share with us a bit about your journey into your position now.
Absolutely. If you had asked me 10 years ago “Will you be writing a book about what you’re doing,” I would have thought you were mad because I had no idea really how the ministry really of Unbelievable? would grow over those years. But really what happened in the 10 plus years that the show has been going is that I really received an education myself in theology and apologetics as I invited so many Christian intellectuals and thinkers and theologians on the show and of course heard the opposite side from many Non-Christians. The reason I called the book Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists I’m Still a Christian, even though we obviously do a number of shows with Muslims and Hindus, Jews, people of other faiths is to some extent the core of the show over those years has tended to revolve around atheist Christian debates because that’s where a lot of the cultural emphasis has been with the rise of the new atheism and so on.
Certainly I know the show has been helpful to people who have listened both Christian and Non-Christian, but I knew it has also been very helpful to me in helping me sort through what is the fundamental evidence for Christianity. Why does it make rational sense? I came to the show obviously as a Christian believer but one who had very little knowledge at the outset of the rational case that can be made for Christian faith and so over the years as I’ve … if you like built that case or heard other people explaining it and obviously arguing against it, I think it’s enabled me to settle on where I find myself in terms of the best reasons for believing in Christianity.
And I thought that was worth sharing with others so what I aim to do in the book was to hopefully tell an interesting story about how the show came about and what it’s been like doing all of these debates over the years but also by drawing on all those conversations, present my own case for faith in Christianity and why it does make intellectual sense as well as emotional sense as well.
Are you hoping Christians and Non-Christians will benefit from it?
Absolutely. I very much wrote it with both people in mind if you like so I hope that for Christians it will encourage them and inspire them to go and have conversations and be open to engaging in dialogue with Non-Christians and the Non-Christians I hope equally that they won’t find it you know, the worst thing you can do is write a book this patronizing and I’m hoping that the experience of doing so many conversations has helped me to write in ways that are not patronizing for a Non-Christian audience.
A book that respects where they are and why they believe what they believe, but also hopefully introduces why I believe what I believe and gives them a window into my faith and why I think it makes sense.
So far the feedback has been very good from both sides be it Christians who have read it and Non-Christians who have read it so I’m encouraged by that.
That’s so good. It’s sort of like a Mere Christianity kind of thing, you want to let them know why you believe in this and it makes sense so that’s really cool. Ten years of talking with atheists and people of other religions… I mean you’ve been hearing first hand some of the most powerful, I would say, arguments against Christianity, which is just crazy. So I’m wondering if you could sort of give us an example of an argument against Christianity that you’ve heard over the years that has sort of made you think about what you believe. Maybe you left the office thinking, “Oh my gosh, I need to talk to my wife about this and really consider this.”
Yeah, for sure and probably one good example- and I spell it out a little in the book, is when I first really started to engage with biblical criticism and one of the prime examples of a skeptic on that front would be Bart Ehrman who is well known in New Testament circles. He was a Christian at one time but he lost his faith and partly that was a journey, because of him becoming increasingly skeptical of the reliability of the New Testament and his bestselling book which sold huge numbers actually at a popular level was Misquoting Jesus. Came out probably about 10 years or so ago and the first time I had him on the show was the skeptic engaging with another the New Testament scholar.
I read the book a couple of weeks before the show was due to happen and it did leave me with some huge question marks. Is the New Testament reliable?
The whole case for it was on the basis of the fact that we don’t have the original manuscripts that were written down or we have a copies of copies and there are so many thousands of variations between them and so the way he paints it in the book does look pretty bleak for the reliability of these texts.
Now of course I began to read other material in the run up to the show and then we had the show itself and I had on him with Peter J. Williams who’s a very good Bible scholar from Cambridge who sort of did the debate with him. What it taught me was the value of that proverb, which says, you know, one person presents a case and seems persuasive and then the other person brings their case, and you realize actually there’s a whole other story to this and that actually the whole point is that this science really of biblical textual criticism means that because we have access to so many copies, although they are of course varied and contain lots of contradictions between them, it’s actually this to the detective like process that allows us to get back to pretty much 99% certainty of what the original documents actually said.
Once you get that explained by someone who shows that it’s really not a half glass empty, it’s a half glass full kind of situation, it puts a different perspective on it and I actually came out of that feeling more confident much more nuanced understanding of what these texts are and how they’ve come to us and also a much better kind of grasp on the fact that sometimes things can get spun in a very negative way which when you actually invest some time looking into it you realize it’s not as simple as that actually.
As it turns out, that show for me ended up confirming the view that we have an extraordinarily reliable Bible, almost unmatched in any other sphere, when it comes to documents of antiquity.
So for me that was a really interesting moment of learning to work through something that at first sight seemed quite troubling.
That’s very good and as you say that I just think… like the power of rhetoric, you can write a whole book with this kind of … with this sort of rhetorical device and it can be so influential. A question for you, why do you think at this present time in where we are in history Bart Ehrman’s books sold very popularly about disqualifying the manuscripts in like the actual words of the Bible? Why do you think this is so popular and why do you think lots of Christians too look at that and start to get worried? Why this specific argument?
I think whether he wants to be allied with them or not, Bart’s arguments were very useful for a segment of culture that is essentially anti-Christian. So the new atheism I think has had historic Christianity in its size and I think Bart Ehrman has been another useful sort of person to use as evidence against Christianity. He’s even actually been surprised himself to find who wants to use him on their side and he actually wrote a book against Jesus mythicism, which is another popular strand of new atheist thinking because he realized people were assuming because he has skepticism over the reliability of the New Testament that he was a full blown mythicist and he actually had to write a book telling them, “No I do believe there was a historical Jesus of course I do.” And got into some, you know, pretty serious online debates and skirmishes with people like Richard Carrier because of it.
He actually said to me when he was talking about that issue, he said … I asked him, “Why do the atheists websites and so on, why are they so keen to particularly trot out the Jesus mythicist view?” And he said “Well I guess if you can deny there was even a Jesus then you’ve kind of denied Christianity at its core and that might be quite useful for some people.”
In a sense I think that’s also why his type of scholarship has, at a popular level, risen to the surface because I think a lot of people feel like,
we can use this (Ehrman’s findings) to discredit Christianity.
I think there’s a lot of people who want to do that for cultural reasons and moral reasons but if you can also discredit the actual intellectual credibility of the religion itself then I think that’s a win as well for certain segments. I’m painting with a broad brush here this is not by any means how all non-Christians or atheists view it but I’m talking about if you, like, there’s a certain popular atheist, new atheist kind of sensibility out there, which I think his material particularly was sympathetic to.
That’s good and just a quick question on the side. When you say that you’re not painting a broad brush over everyone… I grew up in the church and you have as well and there’s lots of people that have been– for some reason we have this bias whenever you watch a debate with a Christian and a Non-Christian and we sort of paint this sort of brush that sounds like, “Oh the Non-Christian’s probably not as nice of a person as the Christian.” I was wondering if you would briefly like just tell us … take the cat of the box and say that obviously there are some amazingly good people that aren’t Christians that have been on your show, right?
Of course and I think that’s the thing. The problem is that in the online world we can tend to demonize both sides because we tend to sit behind our computer screens and for whatever reasons that tends to mean that we start to talk in extremes and everything. It tends to bring the worst out in people. What I find is when you get to actually sit down with people in a studio especially if you can get face to face, you quickly realize this is another human being.
They’re not there simply to destroy your religion or to impose some kind of Christian theocracy or whatever it might be that the other person has in their mind.
They’re actually … they’re human and I think that helps a great deal in actually then having a more sensible kind of conversation. And indeed I meet Christians whose approach I cringe at and I think that’s not the way you should be sharing your faith or trying to convince people and I meet atheists who are lovely people who I would fully want to spend an evening down at the pub with talking to them. So you simply can’t …
it simply doesn’t fall into this kind of black and white category of nice people and nasty people.
And I think the more we can do … we can sort of own up to that and encourage people to kind of take people at face value and genuinely get to know them, the more I think we’ll have productive conversations rather than conversations which just reinforce our own viewpoint in that sense. I hope that Unbelievable? at some level has contributed to that a little bit.
That’s good and I actually want to come back to that question of dialoguing between people with opposing worldviews in just a second here. But I want to first come to listen to a few chapters of your book which sort of have this title called God Makes Sense of dot, dot dot. You say first the human existence and then value and then purpose.
Now really your book is saying, this is why I’m still a Christian. You’re kind of giving us a reason why God does make sense of these very important things. So I’m wondering, I know that obviously you get into it way more in your book but I’m wondering if you could give us of just a brief sort of snapshot of each of those three.
So, firstly, God makes sense of human existence, how so?
Well essentially this is my science chapter in the book to some extent and what I’m pointing out there is some of the amazing discoveries that we made in the last 50 or so years that showed just how extraordinary it is that we exist at all here on Earth. I only really pick up on a few of the things that could be mentioned but one of the key things I mention is obviously that the universe appears to have had a beginning in the Big Bang and there’s a huge question mark over what could have … what brought the universe into being to start with.
And then of course the issue of fine tuning. The fact that the universe appears to be set up with an extraordinary number of finely tuned qualities and constants and variables which had to be exactly just so, in order for any kind of life to exist including humanity.
I deal with some of the typical objections to those sort of arguments for the existence of a Creator and
I explain why in the end I come down believing that actually the evidence is more there in favour of a Creator than against.
Even the fact that we can do science I think is a huge thing something I addressed briefly on that because for a long time many scientists and philosophers of science have marvelled at the fact that we do live in a universe, which is so open to exploration, to being mapped out by physical equations. There’s no obvious reason why that should be and yet we have, as Eugene Victor puts it, the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics and for me these are all fingerprints, signposts, if you like, of “God’s there” … of a Creator behind this whole thing. They’re not ones that force you to believe, but I think they’re ones which are, very personally, I find them compelling and I believe are very consistent with the Christian worldview and inconsistent with an atheistic worldview.
What I’m trying to do throughout these chapters is say: if we’ve got two options on the table, one where there is no ultimate reason behind the universe, there’s no overarching story, there’s no … all that exists really is matter in motion – that’s the atheistic sort of story. Or the Christian story in which there is a purpose and a mind and something that embodies love and so on, then you’ve got … if you’re looking at these two types of explanations for what we find around us, then
Christianity works much better than atheism does.
So, that’s how I treat it in the existence one, that is, the physical evidence of the universe.
The chapter on God is the best explanation of human value, that’s where we, rather than looking outside in the universe, we look inside at ourselves and say “How do we explain this?” The fact that the vast majority of people seem to believe in ultimate moral reality and the importance of human value over and above anything else enshrined in things like declarations of human rights, again, cutting a very long story short, I find that the Christian worldview, which says we’re made in the image of God, and that gives us this extraordinary value, makes more sense of that intuition that seems to be had by almost all people, than an atheistic one where there simply can be no rhyme or reason to why we should prefer our particular species over anything else.
Then finally wrapping up with the purpose one, again that’s where we look at the fact that everyone seems to be on a search for ultimate meaning and transcendence, and are often looking for it in all kinds of different areas.
The question is, will any of these journeys actually offer what we’re looking for? Even atheists are looking for meaning and purpose and are trying to find in all kinds of areas.
And so, for instance, here in the UK we had something called the Sunday Assembly spring up several years ago, which is actually a group of nonbelievers getting together kind of for a church of their own on a Sunday morning where they sing songs and hear a motivational talk and enjoy fellowship in community with each other.
It’s that whole thing of we’re all looking for something but are we going to face up to the reality of the fact that atheism, if you drill down to its logical conclusion, is ultimately a hopeless kind of story because we … all of these temporary meanings and things we may attribute to our lives will be gone. They’ll be gone when we expire and all of them will be gone when the universe finally expires trillions of years in the future.
Is that the story we believe is true about life and the universe and everything?
Again, for me the Christian story that there is a bigger story going on makes more sense of that universal sense of longing for purpose and meaning and transcendence.
So I try to tease that out in various ways through some of the interviews and debates we’ve had on the show with all kinds of interesting people and explain why for me, in lots of different ways, all of these are signposts towards rather than away from God. They make better sense in the Christian framework than in an atheistic framework.
That’s awesome. Thanks for kind of flushing some of those out and obviously if you’re listening Justin goes into those in more details in his book. Now to wrap this up we have about two and a half minutes. I just want to say that over the years of hosting these sort of debates, these conversations, you’ve learned a thing or two about this dialogue between people with opposing worldviews. Now most of us aren’t going to have the ability to do what you are doing – it’s quite unique specifically with mediating.
So how would you encourage the average Joe, the average Jane, to engage in dialogue with people with opposing worldviews? What things have you learned over the years that you can just sort of give us as these kind of tips to think about when we talk with someone on the campus … on a college campus with a Muslim or an atheist or what have you?
Yeah, well I think in some ways there’s never been more opportunities than we have today to engage with people who don’t share our faith, partly because we live in an ever more secular or pluralistic society as well, so there’s people on our doorsteps and because, you know, because of the Internet we are constantly, you know, have the opportunity to engage with people if we choose to do so in that context.
But I think we also need to be very careful about the way we do that as well, particularly when it comes to the Internet. I mean that’s almost a whole separate area where I think you have to really be careful about the motives you’re going in there for.
If ultimately you’re going on the Internet to try and win an argument, you’re probably going to have a bad experience because everyone’s trying to win the argument on the Internet.
I think you have to check your motives and say, “Okay, am I really doing this just to look good and feel like I won something or is my concern really for that person and whether they come to know the Living God?” So we’ve got to be so careful. When it comes … I mean I would, in a sense, say
if you can choose a face to face interaction, then you’re going to get beyond the problems that exist with online interactions. You’re immediately going to have a better chance, I think, of engaging with the person and have that kind of much deeper connection.
When those opportunities arise as they often do, I think the important thing is not to be afraid. I think there’s often a fear among Christians that if I open myself up to this conversation or that person or that tricky question, it might damage my faith. And for me I understand that I think I was probably there myself at one time. But I think you’ve got to have a deep enough confidence in Christ and the Gospel to know that this stuff can stand on its own two feet.
That doesn’t mean you won’t come across hard questions and, you know, things that are mysterious but we shouldn’t be afraid of engaging those and being willing to do some hard work in thinking about them because ultimately people are looking for answers and they’re waiting for us to respond. I think,
be willing to have the conversation. Don’t be afraid, obviously. Do it with gentleness and respect which is exactly what 1 Peter 3:15 encourages us to do, and that means being willing to listen – not simply there to make sure you get all of your list of points in.
It means having a genuine dialogue where you’re willing to take on board what someone says and if you don’t have a ready answer say “That’s really interesting! I’m not sure I know the answer but let me go away and think about it. I’d love to continue the conversation.”
And the way we say things so often is as important as what we say, because I know people … evangelists who are brilliant evangelists who aren’t terribly intellectual people but the character in the way they said things helped people to bring people to a point where they were open to Christianity. And I know brilliant intellectuals who have all the answers but who make terrible evangelists because of the way they say it just puts people’s back up – makes them not interested in even listening really to what’s being said.
So all of those and much more besides, yeah.
It’s so good. Thank you for sharing those … thanks so much Justin, just over all. If you’re listening and you’re interested in more of Justin’s story and maybe interested in his journey of remaining a Christian through many great arguments against Christianity, then I’d encourage you to go and pick up and read Unbelievable? Why After Ten Years of Talking With Atheists I’m Still a Christian. You can find it on Amazon and I’m going to put up some other links as well on the episode page.
We do have a short sort of a web page for it called unbelievablebook.co.uk and that also has links to the audiobook and you can even get signed copies of the book there.
That’s great, perfect. Anyways thanks Justin! I look forward to chatting with you again soon.
Bless you Isaac. Thank you.