Welcome to the latest instalment of our series where ANDY BANNISTER tackles common questions or objections to the Christian faith. Next time you meet a friend who isn’t a Christian, why not ask them a question like: “If you could ask God anything, what would it be?” Send your question to email@example.com and we may tackle it in a future column!
I sometimes ask atheist friends: “What would make you change your mind and become a Christian?” Over the years I’ve received some fascinating answers to that question.
Now it’s entirely fair for an atheist friend to turn the question around and fire it back at me: “Andy, what would it take for you to abandon your Christian faith and become an atheist?”
It’s an appropriate question because the Bible is clear that we should be able to give reasons for our Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15). Christianity has always been evidence-based – for example, the first Christians, on the Day of Pentecost, when asked why they were preaching and causing such a kerfuffle, boldly proclaimed that Jesus had been raised right there in the city (and implied one could go and visit the empty tomb if one wished to check).
And that leads directly to the first part of my answer to my atheist friend’s question. For me to abandon my Christian faith, I would need to become persuaded of two things. First, that the Gospel accounts of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus are not reliable. And, second, that Jesus never rose from the dead.
But in both cases, I believe we are on very strong historical ground as Christians. Recent scholarship on the Gospels has only served to increase our confidence in these first-century historical documents.
For sure, Christians can point to the inner witness of the Spirit when it comes to the truth of scripture; but we can also point our friends to history and ask them to approach the Gospels as we would any other ancient documents and weigh carefully what they say.
Similarly, on the resurrection, we have incredibly strong historical reasons for believing that Jesus rose from the dead. Historian and philosopher, Gary Habermas, has argued that there are a number of historical facts, agreed upon by almost all historians (be those historians Christian, Jewish or secular).
Namely that Jesus was killed by crucifixion, that his tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers, that his disciples were transformed from cowards to bold evangelists, that many of them gave their lives for the message of the resurrection, and that sceptics (such as Paul, or James, the brother of Jesus) came to believe Jesus was the Messiah because of the resurrection.
We can then ask: what best explains these facts? And the “Resurrection Hypothesis” stands head and shoulders above all competing explanations.
You’d have to overturn my confidence in the Gospels and in the resurrection for me to abandon my faith.
But there’s another pillar my faith stands on. Namely that in more than 20 years of public ministry, I have met hundreds of people whose lives have been transformed by their faith in Jesus. I have met former criminals (at least one former murderer), drug addicts, prostitutes, gamblers, alcoholics, adulterers and people whose lives have been at rock bottom. And then, through their encounter with Jesus, they have discovered hope, joy, peace, and a new identity in Christ.
Christianity is not true because it works. But I wholeheartedly believe it works because it’s true. You would have to show me that all of those stories and testimonies were false or their tellers deluded or mistaken, for me to reconsider faith in Christ.
A few years ago, the atheist journalist Matthew Parris was sent by his newspaper to report from Malawi1. Whilst there, he was deeply impressed by the Christians he met and wrote an article entitled, ‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God’.
I will leave you with Matthew’s words:
"Travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my worldview, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa ... In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."
1Matthew Parris, ‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God’, The Times, 27 Dec 2008.
On the reliability of the Gospels, I recommend Amy Orr-Ewing’s book, Why Trust the Bible? On the resurrection, read the wonderful The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. And one of my favourite classic testimony books is Run Baby Run by Nicky Cruz.
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