People believe all sorts of things. Some believe in aliens, while others don’t. Some believe in global warming, while others don’t. Some believe in evolution, while other’s don’t. Some believe in a God or gods, while others do not. Why the disagreement, given there are certainly people of good intention and intellect on either side of many important issues? Why should we believe something?
A fundamental challenge (and a proper one!) you will encounter the moment you begin your evangelistic efforts, is the question of why you believe a particular thing to be the case. (1)This isn’t just true in the case of religion, by the way. ‘Evangelize’ for something like organic food, or why a Mac is better than a PC, and see what happens. For example, just the other day I was challenged concerning why I believe the Bible rather than the myriad other religious texts. And while the question is often posed in a mocking way, it is actually a great question. Christian apologists such as Greg Koukl in his book, Tactics, recommend we (Christians) start doing more such asking of our own.
But, before we look at the reasons people do believe things, it might be helpful to consider reasons they might not. It is often said that there are three fundamental reasons people reject Christianity. I think this typically applies in general.
This reason for rejecting a position rests on the data, or at least the person’s perception or interpretation of the data. It doesn’t mean they understand the facts correctly, but that are grounding their decision in this manner. This would be the claim of most atheists as to why they reject Christianity.
A person might reject the idea of aliens, for example, if they understand fine-tuning principals and astrophysics. Or, they might reject global warming because they just experienced a really cold winter. (Note: in this last example, the interpretation of the data and reasoning is in error, but the rejection falls into the intellectual category.)
An emotional rejection occurs when the reason for the decision is based in a person’s experience and reaction, rather than a proper intellectual analysis. As above, their position could be correct or in error. In our Christian context, this might be the person who rejects Christianity because they were abused by a Christian leader.
A person might reject global warming because they don’t trust environmentalists. Or, maybe they reject Islam because they know someone who was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Volitional (will) or Moral
A volitional rejection occurs when what a person wills overrides the intellectual analysis. Again, this doesn’t necessarily make the decision to be in error. Someone who loves dark-chocolate covered coffee beans, and selects them over jelly beans, might reap health benefits in the process with no knowledge of nutrition or scientific studies. Someone might reject Christianity because they don’t like the impact on their lifestyle. Or, a person might reject global warming because they don’t want to give up their SUV.
I hope it is easy to see why emotional and volitional reasons for believing something can be problematic. However, it is important to keep these in mind. If they are the reasons, the intellectual will almost always be overridden.
Reasons people believe things
The grounding for this reason is in what one is taught by the common knowledge of the society in which they live (aka. conventional wisdom). It is influenced by many factors which may or may not have credibility. For example, that going out into the cold with a wet head makes you sick. Or, that a Twinkie has an infinite shelf-life. That said, conventional wisdom is often quite good, it just isn’t the correct basis on which to believe something.
The grounding for this reason is what someone in a position of authority might tell you, such as parents or teachers. Maybe your parents stressed that if you fall in the water and stay under too long you might drown. Whether or not you’ve ever been swimming, or studied the effects of water on human lungs, this would probably be a good thing to believe.
However, maybe a teacher taught you that the Miller-Urey experiment (the one with the glass apparatus containing water and gases where electrical discharge produced amino acids) showed how life could have started on the early earth. While that teacher had good intentions, it might be wise to be a bit skeptical. Authority can be (and usually is) a great reason to believe something. Most of what we know relies on this principal.
This is a type of grounding that is based on your psychological state or feelings. Examples would be things you believe because they give you comfort or hope. Maybe you believe someone isn’t lying to you because they are pleasant to be around. I think it is pretty easy to see how such a grounding could be in error. But, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily in error.
This type of grounding shares much in common with authority above. However, it goes a bit beyond this with the inclusion of supernatural involvement. For example, if a particular scripture is revealed by deity, then it would at least have the potential for a higher level of knowledge and accuracy. If the religion is false, this grounding could be wildly unreliable. However, if the religion is true, this grounding would be better than anything we have access to. We can be mistaken, even in our perception of reality. God, as defined by Christianity, or even classical theism, has all knowledge and can’t lie, so would be the only 100% reliable source of information.
This type of grounding is based on a correspondence of beliefs and facts. It is, in fact, called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. As J.P. Moreland put it:
“In its simplest form, the correspondence theory of truth says that a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is the case. … Grass’s being green makes Sally’s thought true even if Sally is blind and cannot tell whether or not it is true, and even if Sally does not believe the thought. Reality makes thoughts true or false. A thought is not made true by someone believing it or by someone being able to determine whether or not it is true.” (2)Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn by Dr. J.P. Moreland.
While this Correspondence Theory might seem obvious, it is important to note how this differs from the others. While the others might be grounded in reality, they don’t have to be. In other words, they could be correct, but they might not be.
So, why believe something?
Because it is true! That’s the only good reason.
“But wait,” the Christian might say, what about the Bible? Yes, the Bible is a special case, but not for the reason some might assume. Making the argument for why this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s just say that, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” doesn’t quite cut it!
We’re warned over and over in Scripture to test the spirits, (3)1 John 4:1 and in fact to test everything. (4)1 Thes 5:20 The Apostle Paul spent years carefully checking out the claims of Christianity, and the Berean Jews were commended for examining the Christian testimony carefully. (5)Acts 17:10-11 Even Jesus pointed at miracles, (6)John 10:38 and responded to John the Baptists doubts by pointing at prophecy. (7)Matt 11:2-5 In fact, Old Testament prophecy is indicated as a marker for knowing the true God, as false Gods aren’t able to know the future. (8)Isa 41:21-23 Romans 1 tells us that we’re all without excuse because God is plainly revealed by the world and universe around us. (9)Rom 1:20 And, don’t forget, our arch-rival Satan is said to appear as an ‘angel of light’ and not the red-dude with a pitch-fork! (10)2 Cor 11:13-15
When someone asks you why you believe something, especially Christianity, your first answer should be, “because it is true.” Then, back that up by presenting the case from Scripture and evidence.
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