A Fresh Look at Apologetics: A Conversation with Andrew Wilson
I’m always on the lookout for fresh voices in the field of apologetics. Andrew Wilson’s book If God Then What: Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins & Redemption (IVP – UK, 2012) is a terrific example of a winsome defense of Christianity’s truth claims.
Andrew blogs at Theology Matters, has theology degrees from Cambridge (MA) and London School of Theology (MTh), and is currently studying for a PhD at Kings College London. He is married to Rachel, and they have two children, Zeke and Anna.
Trevin Wax: Your book is a winsome apologetic for a Christian understanding of the world. But it begins, perhaps disarmingly, with a critique of fundamentalism and a celebration of questions. Why start here?
Andrew Wilson: Two reasons, really. First, that’s where my story started. I’d love to have a story like C. S. Lewis (the most reluctant convert in all England) or Alister McGrath (an atheist scientist at University) or something, but that’s not my story; I was brought up in a Christian family and didn’t really consider the evidence for Christian belief properly until after I went to Cambridge. So for me, the apologetic journey began with asking very deep questions of my own worldview rather than gradually discovering a completely foreign one.
And second, in Britain (and from what I’ve seen, in much of the US), secular people associate Christian believers with being anti-intellectual, unquestioning, and possessing mutually reinforcing and insular beliefs. I haven’t found that to be true – and I certainly don’t think it needs to be true – but in many ways it’s a more formidable obstacle to encountering Jesus than anything you might say about evolution or miracles or suffering. Plus, I wanted to do the book humorously and autobiographically, and it’s easier to be funny if you’re being self-deprecating. In England, at least.
Trevin Wax: There’s a kind of fundamentalism that I cherish – the kind that holds fast to precious truths, to “fundamentals” of the faith, if you will. You use the term “fundamentalism” in the way many in society do, which means you give it a fundamentally (pun intended) negative connotation. Explain yourself!
Andrew Wilson: Yes, in many ways I cherish that sort of fundamentalism too. But in my world – and I’ll freely admit the contextual limitations of conceding this – fundamentalism doesn’t mean that any more. I tell a story at the very beginning about my chaplain calling me a fundamentalist, and this story is mainly intended to show what I do and don’t mean by that word.
When I was 13, I thought it meant “believing in the fundamentals of the faith,” but I soon came to see that British people (at least) don’t use the word that way; they mean “believing in something unquestioningly, because of an external authority, without any evidence.” If there were a word available for that and that didn’t involve accidentally disparaging good fundamentalism, I’d have used it. But over here, and increasingly since 9/11, fundamentalism is a bad thing, and it’s the best word in my culture for describing what I used to believe.
Trevin Wax: I’m just picking on you. That’s actually one of the things I liked about your book, the way you take the cultural context seriously enough to meet skeptics on their own turf. In that regard, you don’t spend time debunking evolution or arguing for a literal, seven-day creationism. Instead, you focus your attention on the shortcomings of science to provide full explanations of the world we live in. You also notice the complexity of creation and go forward with a teleological argument for a Creator. Do you find this to be the most persuasive argument for God’s existence today?
Andrew Wilson: Well, that depends. I think it’s a very effective way of showing people that not believing in God, though culturally very acceptable, requires answering a whole bunch of questions in somewhat counterintuitive ways (like believing in a multiverse or in statistical fairy tales). In that sense, I think teleology, particularly at the level of the universe, is an approach that sits well with most secular people because it’s quite straightforward to explain – and it is good at clearing away atheistic overconfidence. But in my experience, it tends to get people as far as “maybe” but rarely (if ever) as far as “okay, I believe that.”
So I use teleology in a negative way, argumentatively: It reduces the potency of all sorts of skepticisms but doesn’t usually take people all the way to theism, let alone Christianity. For me, the best argument for God’s existence is Jesus. And I don’t mean that super-spiritually – it really is.
Trevin Wax: Before we get to Jesus, let’s get to the problem of evil. You call this the hornet in the icing, and you use phrases like Donald Miller’s “an entirely beautiful people with a terrible problem” as a way of getting across the flawed nature of humanity. Do you get pushback from people when you bring sin and evil into the discussion? Or do people tend to believe something is wrong with the world even if they don’t see themselves as the problem? (That’s what I get constantly in my conversations with skeptics.)
Andrew Wilson: Well I don’t tend to call it “sin” when I’m talking to people who aren’t Christians. “Sin,” I find, makes people think of drinking a bit too much or parking on double yellows or even eating chocolate (there’s a whole diet over here that works on the basis of allowing a certain number of sins). So I talk about “evil” and “causing suffering” instead. Most people get that. They know that there is such a thing as evil and suffering and that the two are connected. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that nothing is wrong with the world or that it’s all to do with natural disasters or whatever.
Obviously, what people don’t generally believe is that they are responsible for the evil in the world. So I generally talk in the first person on this one. Rather than saying, “You’re evil, and you cause suffering,” which doesn’t endear you to people, I say things like, “Have you ever caused suffering? I know I have.” Instead of saying, “You’re just the same as Hitler,” I might say, “I have the same basic problem in my heart as Hitler had.”
That’s not mere rhetoric, either: I genuinely believe that; if given his parents, time in history, experiences in the Great War, and so on, I could have done the same things he did. But in talking honestly about my failings – my anger, my past, the things I’ve done that have hurt people – I help people see that they’ve probably done “evil” things as well and caused suffering to others. Some people know that already, of course, so you don’t have to press the point!
Trevin Wax: Your book takes a pretty dramatic turn at the end. Once you get through the problem of evil and human suffering, you jump to the story of Israel and the evidence for the resurrection. I found it interesting that you bring Geza Vermes and N. T. Wright together to show how people can analyze all the data, come to very similar conclusions on the terms used, etc., and still wind up with a verdict that is radically different. What is going on here? What other assumptions and presuppositions are at play?
Andrew Wilson: I’m glad it’s dramatic! The thing about Geza Vermes is that he really reads the first-century evidence well, as you’d expect. He’s not doing a John Dominic Crossan thing and tracing the whole thing back to a hypothetical source, nor is he doing a James Crossley thing and saying the tomb wasn’t empty. He’s saying the tomb was empty, the early Christians did see appearances of Jesus, they did talk about a body coming back to life again, and that the other explanations offered don’t account for the evidence. And then just when you think he’s going to announce Jesus is risen, he ducks behind materialism and science and legality and says that because no skeptic will believe the resurrection story, we’d better try and work out why the early church believed it. It’s like Tom Wright’s analogy of playing a round of golf in the evening and then getting caught by the automatic sprinklers on the 18th green and having to go back to the clubhouse soaked and frustrated.
The presupposition, obviously, is that in a rational, scientific, materialist world like ours, the resurrection story can’t be true. But the whole point about miracles is this: you can only be sure they never happen if you can be sure there isn’t a God. And since you can’t, miracles must at least be possible, and so Vermes’ response falls at the last fence. Maybe there’s just too much at stake. Other than Pinchas Lapide, I don’t know of any scholar who believes Jesus rose from the dead and has remained a non-Christian. Admit the resurrection and the slide into full-blown Christianity is hard to stop.
Trevin Wax: What’s the takeaway? What do you hope Christians and skeptics who read your book will walk away with?
Andrew Wilson: For the Christian, I hope it helps them talk to people about the Christian message in a way that is winsome, humble, and respectful without diluting the challenge of Jesus and the compelling reasons to consider the gospel. For the skeptic, the takeaway is that Christianity is credible and deserves further investigation. I had an e-mail last week from a guy I don’t know who had read the book. He said that he had found it extremely helpful and now had further questions: Why did Jesus have do die? Why the atonement? I got into an e-mail dialogue with him, and he wound up saying he’d need to go to a church to investigate it. In a nutshell, that’s exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote it.