I remember being 15, give or take a year, and walking to school with my best friend. In that 10 minute journey, I remember bombarding him with what I considered to be bulletproof arguments for the existence of God, pulled directly from the first couple of chapters of Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for a Creator.
You see, my friend didn’t believe in God and I, the passionate Christian teenager, was trying to convince him that he really should believe in the only way I knew how: answers. It was beside the point that, on this particular journey, I’d started whacking him with these ‘answers’ the moment he walked out of his front door, so he hadn’t actually asked any questions. It was enough that I knew that he didn’t believe in God, so therefore I’d decided that he really needed to hear what I had to say.*
Armed with books like Strobel’s Case for a Creator and Case for Christ, as well as Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, John Blanchard’s Does God Believe in Atheists and quotes from a plethora of Christian debating superstars like William Lane Craig, John Lennox and Alistair McGrath, I waged intellectual war on the atheism of my secondary school classmates, particularly in the realm of science (though I could turn my hand to questions of ethics and philosophy without batting an eyelid).
I was a Christian. I believed in God. I had all the answers.
Now let’s fast forward seven or eight years. I’ve graduated uni, got married and got a job. I’m still a Christian. I still very much believe in God. But I don’t have all the answers anymore.
So what’s changed?
My Christianity is not the same as it was when I was in secondary school, and that is largely due to unlearning many of the things that I was certain of in the arguments I had with my classmates. Though there are many reasons for the change, in this blog post I’ll touch on three:
- Jesus wasn’t at the centre of my faith.
- The way I read the Bible has changed.
- I realised that God and the Christian faith are much, much bigger than the box I put them in.
Replacing answers with Jesus
Healthy Christian faith must always come back to Jesus. It is built on the life he lead, the death he died, and the ascension that happened thereafter. As a teenager, swamped in apologetics (arguments based on reason used to defend your faith), my faith was built on the arguments I made.
I remember being rocked to my core if I came across something that refuted my arguments convincingly. Arguments for evolution, which I equated with atheism, were the most threatening. If a friend could came up with a case for evolution that I couldn’t immediately answer, I remember the sinking feeling that would come to the pit of my stomach and the sense of being adrift that I would have until I could come up with a counterpoint a day or two later. It sounds dramatic, but that’s how central my version of apologetics was to my ‘Christian’ worldview.
And yet now I’m content to let evolutionary theory be the correct way to explain the development of life on earth. It also wouldn’t phase me if it turns out that my former Old Earth Creationism is correct. What’s changed?
I had to learn that the only solid foundation for my faith is the living Jesus Christ. I mean the Jesus Christ of present day reality, not only the Jesus Christ of my apologetics, who was a historical figure whose life and actions as recorded in the gospels (never mind that they differ on several points) had to be defended.
The root of my faith now is this: Jesus, in his earthly life, started to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. In his death and resurrection, he atoned for the sins of humanity and made it possible for us to live in his new kingdom. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he is present with us today to help us continue the work he started.
That’s not a creedal statement and it’s not perfect, but it’s a long, long way from the old root of my faith. That old root was based on arguments that can change and be defeated. The new root is based on the living person of God himself.
The incarnational Bible
Another major shift in my faith has been my approach to the Bible. As a teenager, everything in the Bible that wasn’t clearly poetic had to be literally true. After all, I saw the Bible as dictated by God, and if there was even the smallest scientific or historical error or contradiction between books, that would make God a liar.
In this view, everything in the Bible could be explained. Every apparent contradiction could be reconciled. The Bible’s presentation of history had to be true. The four gospels had to be harmonised (they had to fit together to make a cohesive, consistent story). Any statement that could be taken as scientific had to be taken at face value.
This was my Bible. It was a book devoid of beauty, devoid of mystery and devoid of life.
I’m not saying that the same is true for the millions of Christians who read it in the same way as I did, but I know that’s how it was for me.
My view of the Bible now is as a collection of books that represent the unfolding and changing relationships of God with humanity throughout multiple centuries and across different cultures. The Bible is incarnational – that means it has human flesh on it, not just God’s divine fingerprint. It is a collection of texts written by humans and inspired by their relationships with God, heavily influenced by worldly cultures but capable of revealing supernatural truth.
This Bible can be hard to read. It doesn’t give easy answers and it often argues with itself, but that’s why I now have to rely on the Holy Spirit to show me God in its pages. Reading the Bible devotionally now feels like more of a collaboration between me and God, rather than an individual effort on my part to unpick the truth that God has put there.
Contradictions are no longer puzzles to be solved, but windows into the mindsets of different authors and cultures. Each gospel is part of a conversation about who Jesus was and why he did what he did. Paul’s letters are part of the messy unfolding of the early Christian church’s struggle with new doctrines and teachings. The histories of Kings and Chronicles are differing perspectives that reflect the changing fortunes of the Judahites who wrote them.
I’m not saying that everyone has to read the Bible this way, but by unlearning nearly everything I thought I knew about it, I’ve found myself much more able to enter into the enriching story of humanity’s troubled, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful walk with God.
Taking God out of the box
In trying to answer every question, the teenage Ben was putting God into an intellectual box. In order to explain everything, I had to make God fit into my worldview and my small amount of knowledge. God had to be the creator of Old Earth creationism. He had to have a certain attitude towards the world. He had to act in certain ways, at certain times and for certain reasons.
Now I don’t think that. I find myself wanting to embrace the mystery of God more and to be okay with not knowing why certain things happen. I’m okay with not having an exact reason for how Jesus’ death atoned for our sins; I’m okay with not knowing the exact truth of Biblical history; I’m okay with not knowing how the world was made and I’m okay with not knowing why evil exists. I don’t have to know the answers because they are secondary to the living reality of Jesus and the faith that I experience as part of a global body of Christianity.
The moment I realised that every Christian is another Christian’s heretic was a major turning point. I realised that there are so many more different views of God than could ever fit into a 15 year old British Christian’s narrative. There are billions of Christians in the world with different views of God and genuine faith in Christ. How can I say that I have all the answers when billions of saints throughout the world and throughout history might disagree?
But that’s not to say I don’t know anything. My faith has to be built on something and in this case it’s built on the life and death of Jesus in the sight of the Father and the present reality of the Spirit. I’m okay with not knowing answers to much more than that.
As a parting point, I really hope that this post doesn’t come across as arrogant or as a put down to people who believe in similar ways to the way I used to. That wasn’t my intention in writing it at all. I don’t want to say that I’m now better or more enlightened than other Christians who are walking with God. All I’m saying is that my relationship has changed for a number of reasons, and I wanted to write about them to give others out there encouragement to explore their faith and maybe, just maybe, to let God lead them into something new.
*Thankfully this friend was gracious enough to forgive me for my unsolicited barrage of semi-scientific arguments, and has since done an incredible job as my best man.