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Correspondence with an Agnostic
Part One

In the following correspondence, the agnostic's comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

>Dear Gary, It was great to come across your website, since not only did it tackle a lot of things that I've been thinking about, but it is refreshing to come across a Christian who is sufficiently into Philosophy to be able to take a detached perspective on their beliefs. As you say in Dead Men Do Bleed!, this gives me hope that you are someone I can communicate meaningfully with about my intellectual problems with Christianity.<

Thank you for your kind comments. I will do my best to address your concerns.

>There are lots of things I would like to discuss with you, but I had better start by telling you where I am coming from. I was a very committed Charismatic Christian, but while studying Philosophy at University I came across a multitude of intellectual problems with it. This, combined with a feeling of being far from God, led me (after about a year of crying out to God for answers, with no apparent reply) to become agnostic verging on atheist. That was about three years ago, and I am still trying to work my belief system out.<

The first thing that jumps out at me is your mention of being a "Charismatic Christian." When I first became a Christian I was attending a charismatic church. I became a Christian IN SPITE OF not BECAUSE OF that church. Shortly afterwards, I left that church and the Charismatic movement in general.

I mention this as, maybe, just maybe, the "Christianity" you rejected just might be a "Christianity" I would reject also. Now, I am NOT saying that the church I attended was a "cult" (by a Christian, theological definition). The church, along with the charismatic movement in general, basically teach what I term the "essentials of the Faith" on my Web site.

However, once you move beyond this short list of essentials, then my disagreements begin. After I left that church I re-thought out everything I was taught. Other than the essentials, I came to reject basically everything that I had been taught, with the exception of believer’s baptism.

I have posted a couple of items dealing with the Charismatic Movement on my site. I hope to post some more in the future. You might want to check them out.

Second, you mention that you "was" a Christian. Here my first disagreement with the charismatic movement will come into play. The charismatic movement is by and large Arminian in its theology. A part of the Arminian belief system is the idea that a true believer can loose his salvation.

Contrasted with this Calvinist or Reformed system that I ascribe to. In this system is the belief of "eternal security" or better, "the perseverance of the saints." According this belief, a true Christian will not totally and finally fall away from the faith.

So if the latter is true, then I see two possibilities: 1) You were never truly a Christian in the first place. 2) God may be allowing you to "struggle" for awhile but he will eventually bring you back to the faith.

This difference is important. It leads me to ask why you became a Christian in the first place. You don’t mention if you were raised in a Christian family, or if you became a Christian later in life. If the former, then I must ask, did you just become a Christian because your parents were? If so, was it really YOUR faith?

If later in life, why did you become a Christian? Let me just say, IMO, there is only one reason to become a Christian, because you realize you are a sinner that needs a Savior. This will become important as I go on.

As for the other possibility, you say you are "still trying to work my belief system out." So you have not become "hardened" in your current beliefs. So maybe God is still dealing with you.

Third, you mention about loosing your faith while in "University." I have often wondered what would have happened to me if I had been a Christian when I went to Penn State. I remember on the first day of my Psychology class the professor proudly proclaiming there was no such thing as the human "soul." We were just physical bodies and that was it.

He based his proud pronouncement on "Ockham’s razor." Since it was "simpler" to say we were just physical rather than physical and spiritual, the former was true.

Since I was not a Christian, I just wrote his comments in my notes. But if I had been one I wonder how I would had reacted. Would I have realized his misuse of Ockham (whom I had never heard of at that time)? Or would it have caused a "crisis" for me? I cannot say for sure. But I do know that there I was a lowly freshman, and here was this man with a doctorate making some pretty strong claims. It could have been rather overbearing.

In any case, I mention this as I can understand that if you go to a school and have a bunch of atheistic professors claiming there are a "multitude of intellectual problems" with the Christian faith, it could cause a crisis for a believer. This would especially be so if, as I suspect, there was no one of equal caliber or authority around to refute their claims.

Fourth, you say you experienced "a feeling of being far from God." Here again I see the charismatic over-emphasis on "feelings" or emotions as opposed to the intellect. If I depended on "feelings" for my faith, I would probably have abandoned it a long time ago.

Given that my life is a complete mess, there have been many times when I have felt "abandoned" by God. But I did not become a Christian because I thought He would make my life "happy." I became a Christian because I was a sinner who needed a Savior. And I am still a sinner who needs a Savior so I am still a Christian.

Feelings of God’s absence can be disquieting for sure. But because my faith was grounded in previous apologetic studies they have not lead me to abandoned my faith. I address my struggles in this regard in my article: Value of an Intellectual Faith.

Now, after that lengthy introduction, lets see if I can address your concerns.

>I could talk for hours, but appreciate that you are busy and so will restrict myself to four main points in response to those articles in your website that I have read, particularly concerning the role of the intellect:

1. If, as you say in Dead Men Do Bleed!, to construct a belief system you have to presume a particular epistemology, and there is no way of proving that epistemology, then surely that is proof for agnosticism?! And the questions you suggest that one should ask about one's worldview do not provide an escape route, since the answers will themselves be biased (I would argue that on none of them does Christianity come out better than atheism, whereas you would argue otherwise).<

First, "skepticism" might be a better way of putting it rather than "agnosticism." Or maybe, "post-modernism." In other words, if we are caught in an epistemological circle, then there would be no way to know the truth of anything, not just the existence of God.

To be honest, this was one of my concerns in writing that article, that it could lead to a "skeptical" view of life. But I proposed a "sample" of questions that I thought could be asked to try to evade this skepticism. One of these was, "can a person live consistency with the worldview on a day-by-day basis?" I would say that a true skepticism would not be truly livable. No decisions could ever truly be made. A consistent skeptic could not affirm that two plus two equals four.

In any case, how do we get out of this epistemological circle? Well, as you say, you could "argue" that atheism could answer my questions as well as Christianity. But it is in that "arguing" that questions can be decided. At least, we each need to make that decision. I have always believed that a person needs to look at both sides of an issue and decide for themselves, at least on the human side. But there is another way to look a this question.

From the Calvinist viewpoint that I ascribe to, regeneration precedes faith. This is opposed to the Arminian view that faith precedes regeneration. What this means is, that it takes a special act of God for someone to first come to believe in God unto salvation. When God regenerates the mind, a person can then "see" the problems with atheism, or other worldviews, and come to see the truthfulness of the Christian faith.

>2. It is very difficult to understand why a Christian God would allow the situation described in 1. to exist.<

Only from an Arminian perspective. Not from a Reformed viewpoint. But more on this after your next comments.

>From your Reformed Baptist perspective in which salvation comes through faith alone, the basic choice all humans face is whether to choose to be their own boss or to repent and submit themselves to God.<

Actually, from a Reformed perspective, the "choice" is God’s, not ours (John 15:16). It is only when God regenerates His elect that they are able to submit to Him. The sinful human mind is incapable of doing so.

>To be able to make this choice people must surely first of all be aware of all the facts involved in that choice: that God exists, that they will face hell if they don't choose God etc? But this just isn't the case (St. Paul might argue that no one had an excuse for not believing in God when they saw creation, but this is no longer the case (if ever) now that people are brought up to believe in evolution (whether or not it is true).

Why doesn't God appear to everyone on the earth every week in an unmistakable way and say "Hello everyone, I love you and I'm here if you want to have a relationship with me"? They could then make an informed (but unpressured) choice.<

Why should He? Now we get to the major difference between an Arminian and a Reformed view. It is the difference between unlimited versus limited atonement. In the Arminian view that you are exposing, God is somehow obligated to give an equal chance to each person to be saved.

But in the Reformed view, God is under no such obligation. We are all sinners who deserve damnation. If God were to damn us all He would be totally just to do so. Moreover, if God chooses to save one person, He is under no obligation to save any one else. I address this subject more on the following page on my Web site: Correspondences on Limited Atonement.

>You could respond by arguing that it is under conditions of uncertainty that whether people really want to know God or not is revealed. Which is why having 'faith' is seen as a virtue.<

Actually, in the Reformed view, faith is a gift, not a virtue (Eph 2:8).

>But surely everyone in their right mind would want to know God, given how much more they would gain (especially in the afterlife). In fact, anyone who didn't choose to submit to God in full knowledge of the facts, would be mentally insane and so it would be unfair to hold them accountable for their choice anyway. No, the reason some people don't 'have faith', is not because they are less keen to know the Christian God, but because they think that the chances of there being a Christian God are so small that it is not worth making sacrifices to find out. Which is fair enough.<

Your comments here remind of several things. First, your comments remind me of a scene from Star Trek: The Original Series. The episode was "Space Seed." In it, "Kahn" asks Captain Kirk if he was familiar with Milton. Kirk responds in the affirmative. Spock latter asks what the reference was. Kirk says it was to Milton’s book Paradise Lost. In it, Milton has Satan saying, "I would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven."

Given all of the facts, the unregenerate person would not want to accept Christ. Doing so requires that a person admit that he is a sinner that needs a Savior. It further requires one to submit to God, to make Christ their Lord. But the unregenerate person would not, nay, cannot do so (1Cor 12:3).

Second, your comments remind me of a conversation I was having with a co-worker a few years ago. I was working as a cook at a country club. I found an "excuse" to go to the concession stand by the pool so I could talk to one of the college girls who were working there for the summer. We got into a discussion about sin. Specifically, I was trying to explain to her that sin can enslave a person. She said I was being silly. Sin does not control a person life.

Just then a man came up to the concession stand window. He asked in a very frustrated and elevated tone, "Do you sell cigarettes here?" The co-worker explained that the concession stand did not sell cigarettes. He exclaimed, "Do YOU have any cigarettes?" She said she didn’t smoke.

At this point he was getting angry, "They don’t sell cigarettes at the bar! The cigarette machine is broken! You don’t sell cigarettes here! WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS THIS?" He stormed away, waving his hands in the air, and still muttering.

I looked at the college girl and say, "See what I mean about sin enslaving?" She just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Now, even with the threat of hell, do you think this man would be able to give up smoking?

More to the point, do you seriously think that only an "insane" person would continue in a particular lifestyle or belief system after he has been warned of the dangers? If so, then I guess all of the tens of millions of smokers in the USA are insane.

Then there are the multitudes of people who continue to engage in "unsafe" sexual practices. If the threat of AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and the host of other STDs do not cause them to turn from their ways, why do you assume that the threat of hell would?

Third, your comments remind me of the Biblical story of the rich man and Lazarus. From Hades, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers and warn him about the fires of Hades. Abraham responds, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

The Bible records many other instances where a miracle does not cause someone to turn form there sin and to God; but instead hardens them in their sin (Exod 7-11; Numb 14:11; 1Kings 19:1f; Matt 21:14f; 28:11-15; Luke 16:31; John 2:23-25; 9:13-34; 11:45-53; 12:9-11,37-41; Acts 4:14-22).

If God were to appear to a die-hard atheist, do you really think the atheist would change his mind about the existence of God? Or would he be more likely to write off the experience as being an hallucination?

If God were to appear to a New Ager and warn him about hell, would the New Ager really change his mind about the existence of hell? Or would he write off the experience as being a "false" spiritual experience.

In other words, an "experience" not matter how powerful, is no guarantee that a person would turn form their sin and turn to God. The only thing that will turn the atheist or New Ager around would be for God to change the person from the inside out. It is their inner state of heart that needs to be changed before they can bring forth the "good fruit" of believing in Christ unto salvation (Matt 7:17-18; Rom 8:7-10; 1Cor 2:14).

Lastly, your statement about being "less keen" is also instructive. It exposes the Arminian aptitude to think there was something "special" about them that enable them to believe and not the next person. In the Reformed view, one believes because God enabled him to do so. As such, there is absolutely no reason to boast (Eph 2:9).

>3. In Different Aspects of Apologetics, the use of human reasoning to advocate Christianity is argued. But is there not debate over the reliability of Man's intellect after the Fall, and so the value of appealing to human reasoning in defense of Christianity? I am thinking of various verses (that have been quoted to me by Christian friends arguing that I should not be using my own reasoning) to the effect that 'the wisdom of this world is foolishness' (a couple of which are in Corinthians - I haven't got a concordance to hand). In particular, there is the role of Satan in deceiving us. So how can you trust your intellect?<

Here again is your charismatic background coming out. One of my biggest problems with the charismatic church I attended, and the charismatic movement in general, was the anti-intellectualism promoted. In fact, a part of the "Confession of Faith" for the church was the statement, "We are called to proclaim the Gospel, not to defend it."

Like you, I had many questions I needed answered. But no one at the church seemed willing or able to provide such answers. Fortunately, God led me to do a lot of reading of my own. It was this reading that was the means He used to bring me to faith.

I discuss this problem with charismatic-type of churches in the following article: Anti-Intellectualism, Legalism, & the Cults.

As for the verses you allude to, I address these in my "Scripture Study" Teaching and Defending the Faith found in my Scripture Workbook..

I discuss 1Corinthians 2:4 in the the chapters on Significant Textual Variants - MT vs. CT in my Bible versions book.

In any case, in the Reformed view the intellect is "fallen" yes. But this does not mean it cannot be trusted in any absolute sense. Yes, we can make mistakes in reasoning. And yes there is the aspect of sin and rebellion against God that needs to be accounted for. But we are still created in the image of God even after the Fall (Gen 9:6; James 3:9). And God is a rational Being and He created us to use the reasoning He gave us. As such, the defense of the faith is one of the means that God uses to bring His elect to Himself (1Peter 3:15).

>This means that the main thing for me at the moment is ascertaining whether Satan exists, because before I do this I cannot trust my reasoning on any other matter. I feel like Descartes in Meditations with his hypothesis of the malicious demon deceiving him!<

Your comment here reminds me of a post I saw in a "Christian" Newsgroup once. The poster stated, "Name one thing that God can do that a powerful deceiver couldn't do to the extent that you cannot tell."

I responded with the following:
My favorite episode of the Twilight Zone begins with a court scene. The judge asks the foreman of jury if they had reached a verdict. The foreman stands and says, "Yes; We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree."

The camera moves to the judge. He declares, "I sentence the defendant to death by electrocution, to be carried out at midnight tonight." The camera swings to the defendant as he jumps up and screams, "NO, NO, NOT AGAIN!"

For the rest of the show, the defendant tries to convince everyone that this is all just a recurring dream (or nightmare) that he has been having; they will all disappear as soon as the switch is thrown. Of course, they all don't believe him. One officer says to him, "Look, I have a wife and kids at home; I have memories of my life; if this is just a dream where did that all come from?" The defendant replies, "Don't you understand? I gave you those memories; it's a part of my dread."

Midnight comes; the defendant is lead to the execution chamber. The mask is pulled over his head and the switch thrown. Everything goes dark for a few seconds.

Then a courtroom scene appears. The judge ask the foreman of jury if they had reached a verdict. The foreman stands and says, "Yes; We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree." As the sound fades away the camera moves to the judge and then the defendant. As the camera moves to Rod Serling, the last thing you see is the defendant jumping up and screaming ...."

The point of all the above? How do you know that you exist? Is it possible that you (and I) are just a part of someone's dream? If so, then why bother with anything? If you believe that we do exist, why?

Everyone has to start somewhere in determining truth. Or to put it another way, we all have to start with some kind of presuppositions and epistemologies; some posting in this thread (and elsewhere) start with the assumption that empiricism (and consequently science) are THE way to determine truth. But can you prove that?

Others start with the presupposition of the existence of God; can that be proven? Not anymore than you can prove you are not a dream. But that's the point. Its a presupposition.

But whose presupposition is true? Since we're starting with different presuppositions and epistemologies that's not an easy question to answer. But may I suggest that by looking at an entire worldview and making a choice as to which you think is more logical, livable, consistent, based upon the assumed presuppositions and epistemologies.

I then provided a link to my "Dead Men Do Bleed!" article.

To add to the above, IMO, it would be difficult to trust your reasoning in any worldview other than a theistic one. Yes, the Christian faith teaches there is a Satan. But his powers are limited; God is supreme. It is by presupposing the truth of the Bible that we have a basis for truth.

In a "skeptical" worldview, as indicated above, truth becomes impossible. In an atheistic worldview, I would also say truth become difficult. An atheist must appeal to empiricism for determining truth. But, as I point out in my article Science and the Bible, empiricism can never give absolute truth.

Furthermore, only the Christian faith gives an epistemological basis for the science that the atheist loves so dearly. I discuss this in my article Voyager, Science, and the Christian Faith.

>4. People cannot come to faith on the basis of intellect alone (otherwise it wouldn't be 'faith'!). Assuming that someone has been sufficiently convinced intellectually so as to provide a favourable environment, they then make the 'leap of faith' only when two conditions hold:

a) They need emotionally to believe.
b) They have had some kind of experience that gives them 'personal proof'. This can be quite small, such as having a Christian friend who they respect, and will be subjective.<

First, I need to address your apparent definition of the word "faith." You seem to think that "faith" is something beyond the intellect. Biblically, faith is simply my intellect operating. It is taking what one knows is true and acting upon it. To put it another way, a Christian commitment is not a "leap of faith" but a step in the direction that one’s intellect is taking him. I would say that Biblical faith is intellectual assent plus commitment.

The condition that needs to hold for one to make this commitment is for the person to acknowledge that he is in fact a sinner that needs a Savior, and that Christ is that One and only Savior. For a person to be able to make this admission God must first regenerate the person.

As for your comments about "emotionally believing" I assume you mean this as opposed to "only" believing intellectually. Let me say Biblically either one believes or he does not believe. There are not two kinds of belief (except for hypocritical versus true belief but I don’t think that is what you are referring to).

In other words, with your charismatic background, I would assume you were taught that there is somehow a distinction between believing with the "head" versus believing with the "heart." I address this false notion in my article "Christian" Mysticism.

As for experience, yes God might use some kind of experience as the turning point in someone’s commitment, or maybe to get their attention. But again, a true Christian faith would not be based on this "experience" but on the truthfulness of the Gospel and one’s need for a Savior.

>These two will both feed off each other (the need makes experiences be interpreted as evidence, and the experience awakens the needs), and crucially, influence the operation of the intellect which does not operate in a vacuum. Once the leap has been taken, the person's faith is further strengthened as the experience of the leap is added, and they are now emotionally committed to the belief. This is why new Christians often find themselves in a process of everything 'fitting into place'.

I have experienced this process occurring in exactly the same way in reverse, and believe that your coming to faith could be explained in the same way. The emotional need was there from your need to find something to fill the gap of weight-lifting, but I don't know what your 'experience' part was that gave you 'personal proof' of Christianity.<

It is true that once one begins to go in a certain direction that they will "find" supporting evidence along the way. As a person becomes involved in his new belief system he will come across others with similar beliefs, and this will help to confirm his new commitment. But none of this affects the question of whether the initial change was "correct" or not.

Moreover, people often change their beliefs within a system or from one system to another, or go back and forth between systems. So these "confirming" experiences are not all encompassing.

If anyone's assent to a monolithic belief system can be explained as the result of a subjective psychological process, this cast's doubt upon the belief system itself. I wonder whether I can construct a belief system for myself that minimizes such subjectivities. I doubt it.

This sounds like William James and his book The Variety of Religious Experiences. I read this book quite a few years ago before becoming a Christian. As I remember, he did make some interesting observations, but I did not think all the "experiences" he described could be explained away via purely "psychological" means. There were objective elements that could be critiqued.

>I look forward very much to hearing your response!
Best wishes
Strahan (pronounced 'Strawn') Spencer<

I do not know if the above will be helpful or not. I may have gone off in a direction you did not expect. But since you had already been exposed to a charismatic/ Arminian view of the Christian faith, I thought it might help to point out there is a different way of viewing the Christian faith, namely from a Reformed perspective.

For more on the Reformed viewpoint, see the articles listed on the following page on my site Calvinism (Reformed Theology).

This e-mail exchange is continued at: Correspondence with an Agnostic - Part Two.

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The above e-mail exchange was posted on this Web site in December 1997.

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