Fresh from a public debate at Trinity College Dublin, where 600 students overflowed from the college’s largest lecture theatre and filled three overflow rooms while a further 1,100 people watched online, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig is adamant that Christian faith is a reasonable thing.
“As I went through my graduate education I became increasingly burdened with presenting the Gospel in the context of giving an intellectual defence of the Christian worldview,” he says. “I wanted to help students see that becoming a Christian is an intellectually viable option for thinking people today. I wanted to help them see that you don’t need to put your brains in one pocket and your faith in another pocket, and never let them see the light of day at the same time.”
Originally from Peoria, Illinois, and now a professor in California’s Biola Institute and Houston Baptist University in Texas, Dr Craig had become a convinced Christian in his teenage years, so he aimed to speak to people of a similar age to that at which his own life had been transformed.
He explains that his apologetic ministry began in the early 1980s and has been conducted through the internet over the last decade or so, through his website ReasonableFaith.org which hosts videos of debates in which he’s taken part and lectures he’s given, as well as podcasts, a weekly column where he takes questions from readers, and an open forum where people can dialogue.
‘Faith and reason’ had of course been the watchword of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, but it had also been the subject of a 1988 exhortation by St John Paul, and Dr Craig believes his approach is in line with the late Pope’s emphasis.
“He issued a charge for what he called ‘The New Evangelisation’, and I gave a lecture on this at St Mary’s on the Lake seminary, which is the largest Catholic seminary in North America, in 2016. They asked me to address the New Evangelisation, using John Paul’s remarks as a springboard, and then to talk about how to effectively share the Gospel on university campuses,” he says.
With his emphasis in line with this call to re-evangelise Christianity’s old heartlands, he says: “The kind of ministry we carry out is in defence of what C.S. Lewis called ‘mere Christianity’, that is to say, those cardinal truths that are common to all of the great confessions of Christendom, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic or Protestant, so it’s been thrilling for me to see people from all of those confessions grateful for the work that we do and using our materials in their own confession.”
Arguments for the truth of Christianity tend to depend on a combination of philosophical and historical approaches with some scientific considerations, he says, explaining how in the late 1970s he had worked on the historicity of the Resurrection as a doctoral student in the University of Munich.
Although the says “the historical component is important”, he stresses that “the fundamental ground is philosophical, but then the scientific gets pulled in to that, especially in the field of cosmology, because I find that there is good scientific evidence for some of the key premises in these philosophical arguments for God’s existence”.
“I don’t make a naive claim like ‘science proves God’,” he cautions, “my claim is that science can furnish evidence that is in support of a premise in a philosophical argument for a conclusion that has theological significance.”
He says he tries to steer clear of making excessive claims of proof. “I try to avoid that risk,” he says, continuing: “The name of our ministry is ‘Reasonable Faith’, and that’s the name of my signature book.
“It’s not an immodest claim – it’s a claim that we can show that faith is a reasonable step for informed and thinking people to take. I suspect that for many people they don’t actually believe because of the arguments, but that the arguments give them the intellectual permission to believe by removing the obstacles and then responding to the conviction of the Holy Spirit when he moves them.”
Although he has debated the reasonableness of Christian belief in many countries, he says he hasn’t found that arguments against Christianity vary much from culture to culture.
“In terms of whether or not one hears anything new,” he observes, “I have been hearing in more recent years, and particularly in this very tour in the two debates that I’ve had in Ireland, both of my opponents have challenged me on the idea of the existence of an unembodied mind. I think the materialistic view of human beings is very powerful, so to talk about an unembodied person like God, for many, is a matter which is incomprehensible.
“They don’t understand how there could be an unembodied person because they think persons are these material objects, these electrochemical machines, biological machines as it were, and so one needs to be prepared to give a defence of soul-body dualism, to say that it is intelligible and comprehensible and defensible to talk about the existence of a soul which is not identical to the brain.”
The so-called ‘New Atheism’ has fizzled out since its heyday of a decade or so back, with Christopher Hitchens having died, Sam Harris having been drawn into books advocating a kind of spirituality that owes much to Tibetan Buddhism, and Richard Dawkins having become a kind of ‘embarrassing uncle’ who rants on Twitter. For Dr Craig, however, the arguments and attitudes of such noisy pop atheists are now part of the cultural mainstream.
“I do not think its influence has gone,” he says. “As I talk with university students, I think that the shadow of the New Atheism still persists in the minds of many students. This is especially evident on the internet, where the sort of internet infidel subculture is very modernist, very scientistic, and I think still looks to people like Dawkins and Harris and others as their guiding lights.
“So, although these folks have been roundly denounced by academics and intellectuals, I think in popular culture they still remain very influential.”
Not, he adds, that those with whom he debates have necessarily come under their sway, pointing to how his debating opponent at Trinity, Prof. Daniel Came from the University of Hull, is “an atheist and a substantive philosopher and thinker” who is “very critical” of the New Atheists.
Asked whether he thinks that public debates run a risk of being exercises in cheerleading, Dr Craig agrees this can be a problem. “Oh I certainly do,” he says, “and that’s why I think it’s really important in these debates to instruct the audience to hold their applause until the end, because otherwise, if you allow the students to be cheering and applauding for the things they agree with, it does turn into a raucous environment.
“I’ve experienced that in Australia and in Canada at the University of British Columbia,” he continues, “and I think the decorum that characterised the debate last night was very positive. The applause was held to the end, it was an academic exchange with civility and cordiality – that’s the way they ought to be constructed.”
One might equally wonder whether public debates really do anything to change minds, but Dr Craig believes they definitely have a part to play.
“I think it’s unlikely that many would change their minds in the space of an hour and a half, though it does happen,” he says, “but it’s a cumulative effect of what the apostle Paul called sowing and watering over time. We get a steady stream of emails from people who tell us that they have either come to Christian faith or have come back to Christian faith – after deserting it in secondary school or university – because of watching these YouTube videos or reading articles, listening to podcasts – so the cumulative effect is undeniable and testified.”
Even in the recent past, he says, books and articles would have been key to apologetics and evangelism in this way, but with many of today’s students having a more visual sensibility, YouTube and other videos are crucial.
Asked what he finds the most difficult subject to tackle in debates, he highlights what C.S. Lewis called ‘the problem of pain’. “I think it would be the emotional problem of suffering,” he says. “On an intellectual level I can handle that philosophical challenge, but emotionally it’s very powerful, and I think that if the atheist tries to move the audience’s emotions by describing horrible suffering and pain and how pointless it seems, then the philosophical answers can seem arid and unmoving, so in an audience-style debate, controlling the emotional mood is the biggest challenge.”
Answers to questions of suffering tend to relate to ultimate meaning and to how Christ shares our pain, so an obvious question is whether there is a danger of his confusing his philosophical and evangelical hats – are they distinct things, or one thing with two manifestations?
“I would say one thing with two manifestations,” he says. “Early on I determined that I would produce first-rate scholarship to the best of my ability, but that I would then take that same material and distill it down to the popular level for the man in the street. My inspiration in this was none other than Emmanuel Kant. Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason, which no one could understand, so he wrote a popular-level abbreviation called Prologomena to any Future Metaphysics, and this is what I determined to do.
“So, I wrote for example, The Kalām Cosmological Argument, but then I wrote a little popular-level book called The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe,” he continues, “and with each of the areas that I have worked on I’ve followed that same pattern: I’ll publish a scholarly book with an academic press, and then I’ll write a popular-level book with a popular press for the lay person, and in that way I am working on both levels.”
The Kalām argument, for which he’s famous, is a streamlined and superficially Aristotelian thesis that follows the pattern of everything that comes into existence has a cause, and the Universe came into existence, therefore the Universe has a cause, which we call God.
“It has a long history that goes right back to the 4th Century in the response of early Christian commentators to Aristotle, and his doctrine of the eternity of the Universe, so it has a long history,” Dr Craig says, continuing. “It was highly developed in medieval Islamic theology, and that’s when the name derives – Kalām is the Arabic word for medieval Islamic scholasticism – and then this was inherited back into the West again through Jewish thinkers in Muslim Spain.
“People like Bonaventure and others began to appropriate this, Aquinas interacted with this tradition, so the Kalām argument came back into western theology after having been eclipsed for a time but preserved in Islam.”
While Aquinas believed the universe had a beginning, he believed this through faith, as he did not believe it was possible to prove this uncontrovertibly; nonetheless, he thought the argument unnecessary, as he believed that even if the universe had always existed it would still need an uncaused cause.
“That’s exactly what he would say,” says Dr Craig. “He always wants to argue on the more difficult supposition that the world had no beginning, because he says if motion and the world had a first beginning then it’s obvious that it has to have a cause that brought it into being – I agree with him on that – but he thought that you could only give probabilistic arguments for the beginning of the Universe, and he wanted his arguments to be demonstrations, to be airtight, and not just probabilistic.
“Well, very few – really, no – philosophers today would think that a good argument has to be demonstrative in order to be good. Probabilistic arguments are really the best that we can hope for, and so a probabilistic argument like the Kalām argument is, I think, a valuable piece of natural theology.”
Such arguments from natural theology are typically the first stage in apologetics, explains Dr Craig, mapping out a standard apologetic outline: “You do your natural theology first, and that gets you to a generic monotheism that is common to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Deism.
“And then you ask whether this creator and designer of the world has revealed himself in some more specific way, and that requires us to look at the person of Jesus of Nazareth, especially the facts surrounding his alleged resurrection from the dead.”
It’s at this point, he says, that historical analysis enters the process. “Now, what I discovered as a result of my work in Munich on this, is that there are three facts that are accepted by the majority of historical Jesus scholars today that undergird the inference to Jesus’ resurrection,” he says, continuing: “These would be the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus and the origin of the disciples’ belief that God had raised him from the dead.”
He identifies The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, as “the fullest development of that third point, namely how do you explain the origin of this belief and this movement in the middle of the 1st Century”, pointing to how Dr Wright believes the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances constitute the best explanation of the early Church’s existence and belief in the Resurrection.
“I think of this, however, as a three-legged stool – empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, origin of the disciples’ belief – that can be independently established of each other, and therefore you have a very powerful support for the inference to the Resurrection,” he says, continuing, “Wright has developed only one leg of the stool, I’ve tried to develop the other two as well, and the three of them together provide a powerful cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus.”
Whether he’s right or not is, of course, open to debate. And it’s a debate that Dr Craig doesn’t shy away from.