The Double-Acting Effect of Scripture
So, I was scrolling through the various Patheos blogs that I follow and came across this post from Neil Carter that asks that question. His post interacts with Lee Strobel’s conversion story. Neil refers to several caricatures of atheists in popular films, and some misapplication of the term, wrapping up his introduction by writing,
They can’t even imagine what it would be like to view the world from a truly godless point of view.
Well, neither can Neil for that matter, as this previous interaction demonstrates, but that’s beside the point.
Under the heading, “It’s Personal Now”, Neil begins,
To cut to the chase, I think this boils down to the centrality of emotion in human nature. We like to think of ourselves as eminently rational beings, especially those of us who fly the “skeptic” flag. But the harsh reality is that, more often than not, we chart our course because of how we feel about a matter rather than what we think about it. The former guides the latter more than we will ever admit.
He’s absolutely right: emotion is often the primary driving factor in human experience. I can’t remember if it’s something that I read in the work of Jonathan Haidt or Paul Bloom or what, but the gist is that humans like to pretend that we’re rational creatures that occasionally get emotional, when the truth is that we’re emotional creatures that occasionally get rational.
How many times do we simply react to things with an emotional outburst? Someone criticizes our work and we get angry instead of listening to what they’re saying to see if it’s deserved or not. The perfect example of this emotionalism is seen in the response of people to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Merely mentioning the name in certain settings will elicit an explosion of emotion that was once reserved for blacks at the lunch counter. Much of our rational thought is post hoc because we often focus on the emotion first.
Referring to the situation that brought about Strobel’s conversion, namely his wife’s own conversion, Neil writes,
Strobel often tells how his wife’s conversion strained their marriage, leading him to worry they would eventually divorce. He says the change in his wife’s beliefs produced an accompanying improvement in her overall attitude and demeanor, and this made him uneasy. So he devoted himself to a personally guided study of the reliability of the gospels (if he had started with the Old Testament, he’d have quit after only a few weeks, demoralized).
I’ve never personally read The Case for Christ, but I have heard Strobel’s testimony in several instances. But the implied question is, why begin with the gospels and not with Genesis? Because the Bible isn’t one book, for starters. Further, if the question is “who is this ‘Jesus’ that my wife has come to know and love in such a way that it has fundamentally changed her,” you wouldn’t go look at some dude named Jehoshaphat.
What is the primary assertion of the gospels? Namely that there was a historical person named Jesus who made a number of significant claims and proved the truth of his claims. Now, I will admit that much of what is said about Jesus by his biographers is lost without understanding the backgrounds that underlie his claims, but one must start with the gospels to know anything about Jesus.
Neil goes on to summarize Lee’s experience, and not so subtly accuse him of being a sexist, before listing off the scholars to whom Strobel spoke before writing his story,
Not only are these men all lifelong members of the Christian church, they are almost all theology professors employed by Christian seminaries and universities. Most of them, if not all, have even served as pastors of evangelical churches. Does this look like a list of experts you’d want to consult in order to get an unbiased survey of the reliability of the Bible?
Let’s kinda turn this around here: if you wanted an “unbiased” discussion of, say, evolution, would you go to Richard Dawkins or Ken Ham? Think about it. There is no such thing as unbiased when it comes to a particular subject. If you want to know why something, say the gospels, are reliable, either historically or textually, you wouldn’t go to someone who didn’t have good reason believe that they were. This is simply ad hominem masquerading as criticism. Further, Neil simply assumes something, because not every one of the men named in that list is a “lifelong member of the Christian church”. Edwin Yamauchi, a historian that Strobel interviewed for his book, was raised a Buddhist.
Neil essentially accuses Strobel of coming to his conclusion before he starts, but wait…didn’t Neil already conclude that before he started? Strobel even discusses one of the most theologically explosive events of his time, the Jesus Seminar.
While there were a number of serious scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar, the vast majority were non-specialists (this article has a summary of the membership of the “fellows”). And they decided based upon a vote. How very scholarly. But I digress, since this is getting far off the topic.
Linking to another post of his, Neil writes,
[…]Strobel isn’t the only person who tells this kind of story. My friend is right, some people do convert to Christianity by reading the Bible, and it’s curious that atheists like me who DE-convert often give exactly the same reason for leaving: we read the Bible, just like we were told to do. So what gives? How can doing the same activity produce such opposite results?
And that’s the question that we’re seeking to answer: how can two people have similar experiences and come to two different conclusions? In this case, Lee Strobel and Neil Carter.
How can a devout unbeliever become a convinced believer and a convinced believer become an unbeliever?
Now, Neil quotes an interesting passage of Scripture (the fuller context is here),
For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. (2 Corinthians 2:15-16, NIV)
While that’s not where I would have gone—more on that later—Neil says of this,
At one point in my own past, I took great solace in this passage as it assured me it wasn’t my fault when people weren’t as captivated by my beliefs as I was. They just weren’t the right kind of people, you see. They didn’t have “ears to hear” what God was up to in the world.
Partly true, but that’s a whole other subject. What we’re dealing with here is why the same message can have two different effects: prompting some to believe and others to stop believing. Neil continues,
But now I’m one of those people for whom this message has started to smell bad, like a cup of milk you forgot to pour out before you left to go on a long trip. The words are the same, but now it all just kind of stinks. (Emphasis original)
Okay, why is that? Neil doesn’t really say, instead he shifts the focus back to Strobel, because he wants to explain Strobel’s experience away. He equates this to being in love. That when you first fall in love with someone, you cannot see their faults. That’s not love though that’s lust. It’s bare attraction. Neil says of this,
This, to me, parallels what happens when an atheist unfamiliar with the psychological pull of religious belief finds himself drawn in by the grandiose claims it makes. It’s especially irresistible if your spouse is already there, waiting for you to join him or her in that blissful existence.
Well, let’s just ask this question, what if this had gone the other way? What if Strobel and his wife had been dedicated Christians and then slipped into unbelief, would Neil make the same assertion? If not, why? Remember, if the logic works one way, but not the other, then it’s an invalid argument. We can argue all that we want about psychological pulls and whatnot, but those ultimately take a backseat to the facts. Neil latches on and doubles down though,
I think Strobel came to the faith wearing rose-colored glasses. He had strong personal motivation to confirm the religion that had captivated his most intimate life partner, and I know exactly what that pull feels like. It’s enough to motivate a guy to lie to himself about how well he’s thought through things, and what he can live with.
Let’s just say that it’s true: Strobel had emotional reasons to want Christianity to be true, namely because he valued his marriage and he loved his wife. Okay, that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that the claims of Christianity aren’t true. Lee wanted, for emotional reasons, to know if what his wife was believing was true and he went to scholars to get their opinions. Good for him. If that is the means that God used to draw Lee Strobel to himself for salvation in Christ then praise be to God.
Now, just to momentarily go back to the question at hand, why does the Bible cause some to believe and others to disbelieve, this is where I think Scripture has the answer.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable. This is often called the “Parable of the Sower,” but the focus is on the soils, of which there are 4 kinds: the hard-packed path, the rocky soil, ground with thorns and thistles, and finally, the properly prepared ground. In the explanation of the parable the seed, representing the word of God, gets spread liberally. In being proclaimed it the seed of the Word falls on places that are unfit, like the road, which can be roughly equated to a hardened unbeliever, it has no effect and is taken away. Then there’s ground which would seem to be able to accept it, represented by the shallow, rocky ground and the thorns and thistles, both of which seem to respond but circumstances choke out the Word and any positive effect that it could have, being those we could equate to false believers. Then there’s the prepared ground where an abundant crop of belief can emerge.
The humble believer makes no assumptions about what he could be because, like the soils in the parable, they are dependent upon the preparative and maintaining work of God. We plead for God’s mercy to sustain us and bring us to fruition.
Why is it that the same message can have two different effects, it’s because of the will and the means of God to reveal faithfulness or faithlessness in men.