In my years as a pastor and professor, I’ve spoken with thousands of people—most of them firm believers in the biblical perspective on Jesus—about Christian apologetics and the historical foundations of their faith. In the process, I’ve heard multitudes of well-meaning Christians provide two particular reasons for their faith.
The first reason runs something like this: “I just know Jesus is alive because I’ve felt his presence—that’s the only proof I need!” The other one is usually stated in these terms: “The Bible is God’s Word; so, if the Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it.”
If the Christian faith happened to be a faith that we keep to ourselves, these foundations for faith might be acceptable. In fact, as Alvin Plantinga has argued, an individual’s faith is warranted based on experience as long as his or her cognitive faculties are working properly, the beliefs have been formed in an environment that’s appropriate for cognitive faculties to work correctly, and the beliefs themselves have been formed as part of a design plan that was aimed at seeking and finding truth.
But Christian faith isn’t merely a belief system that’s known and then kept to ourselves.
Christian faith is, by its very nature, a way of believing and living that’s intended to be shown to others. What’s more, the point of this showing is so that others end up knowing what we know already. Of course, we can’t cause anyone to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ–that’s a work of the Holy Spirit that we can’t control. At the same time, we are called to provide reasonable foundations for the hope that we proclaim (1 Peter 3:15). When it comes to providing reasons for our faith, our experiences of the living Jesus and the internal claims of Scripture may be true and meaningful–but neither one of these provides a sufficient foundation for defending our faith. These two reasons are fine foundations for knowing our faith but not necessarily for showing our faith.
Let’s examine each of these foundations for faith and look for some better ways not merely to know our faith but to show our faith.
(1) The Bible says it?
The apostle Paul referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as “God-breathed,” and a letter from Simon Peter placed New Testament writings in the same inspired category as the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:16-17). But any author can claim that a certain writing is the sacred Word of God. I could even make such a statement about this blog post, though I most likely won’t. Joseph Smith claimed that his Book of Mormon came directly from the divine, mediated through golden plates and an angel. The Qur’an—the holy book of the Islamic faith—claims divine inspiration for itself too.[i]
Do I believe the Bible to be God’s inspired Word? Certainly! Is this belief essential and important? Yes! But this assertion, by itself, doesn’t provide the unbeliever with any reasons to believe that my claims about Jesus are true. We need to be able to demonstrate that the claims found in Scripture, and particularly claims related to the gospel, fit coherently with history.
(2) I’ve experienced it?
But what about the inward, personal awareness that Jesus is present and alive?[iii] Doesn’t that prove the truth of the gospel? “You ask me how I know he lives,” the classic hymn “He Lives” inquires before attempting to silence the skeptic with the triumphant reply: “He lives within my heart!”[iv] Our own inner experience of the risen Lord is important! Unless we’ve experienced that reality, any reasons that we may provide for our faith will lack integrity because we have not yet experienced the truth that we are proclaiming. But, when it comes to showing our faith to others, we need reasons that reach further than our own experiences. If the only reason we can offer for the truth of Christian faith is our own personal experience with the divine, there’s little difference between our claims and the claims of persons whose lives have been changed by some other religion.
So are there good reasons to share with others beyond the Bible’s inward claims to be inspired and our inward claims to have experienced God’s grace?
But those reasons are not to be found in our personal experiences or the claims of Scripture divorced from God’s actions in history. They are to be found first and foremost in God’s decisive actions in history through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
[i] “Allah … has revealed to you [Muhammad] this Scripture as Truth” (Surat ‘ali Imran , 2-3).
[ii] “They neither killed nor crucified him [Messiah Jesus, the prophet of Allah]. It was only made to appear that way … they did not kill him—no, Allah lifted him up to himself” (Surat An-Nisa , 157-159)
[iii] It is interesting to consider how close this idea—held by many well-meaning believers in Jesus—stands to more liberal views of scholars such as Albert Schweitzer. In Schweitzer’s liminal work The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the present reality of Jesus was—in the end, with Jesus having been stripped of the historical reality of anything beyond his supposed place as a failed apocalyptic messenger—reduced to the existential experience of the individual: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew Him not. … To those who obey, … they shall learn in their own experience Who He is” (<http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/schweitzer/chapter20.html>, emphasis added).
[iv] A. Ackley, “He Lives” (Kingwood, West Virginia: The Rodeheaver Company, 1933).