(Preface: The young college girl in this piece (Jennifer) is fictional. But she represents most of us who consider ourselves Christians. Her experiences are drawn from those of real people, including this author. At the end of this story lies a golden nugget, a truth to be discovered.)
Jennifer was accepted at a major university. Which one is not important, because the same things would have happened to her at any big university, anywhere in the world. She began her studies in English, fine arts and literature, hoping one day to teach. Jennifer came from a small rural mid-America town, and was raised in a conservative Christian family. She had attended a local Baptist church and over the years had been active in Sunday School, choir, youth groups, and Bible study classes. She was always a bright-eyed little lady, outgoing, confident in her faith, ready to give her Christian testimony whenever the opportunity presented itself. Guess what? As the weeks and months passed during her college days she felt herself being broadsided. Broadsided? What does ‘broadsided’ mean? This: she met and interacted with a lot of people – fellow students, teachers, advisers, and work associates (Jennifer had a part-time job at the student union cafeteria). She also kept in contact with ‘friends’ on social media. Some of the people she met were fine individuals, intelligent and admirable – and she found herself liking many of them.
But, there’s a dark side – here’s what some of them did. They saw Jennifer carrying her Bible, going to church on Sundays and attending student-run Bible study groups. They noticed that she politely refused to take part in off-color jokes and gossipy chit-chat. Her impeccable grooming, her fine study habits, her polite manner of speech, and her confident attitudes were noticed – behavior that began to make some of her non-Christian associates uncomfortable. So, over the course of weeks and months, some began to communicate to her, either directly, or by innuendos and hit-and-run remarks, that her Christianity was childish, ‘cute’ perhaps, but narrow, old-fashioned, and most certainly: make-believe. Eventually she found herself in deep, and often contentious, discussions about her faith. She was challenged with an assortment of classical objections to her Christianity;
1) God does not exist. ‘God’ is an invention, a crutch, created to help deal with the imponderable and difficult questions of life. The religions of the world are ‘projections of our desire for security and meaning’, as per Sigmund Freud and his followers.
2) The Bible is a collection of myths, complied in the second or third centuries, containing questionable ‘history’, and the writings and musings of dreamers and sages, perhaps well-intentioned, but assembled by people trying to set forth a specific theistic world-view.
3) There is no divine Creator. The universe, the planet Earth, and all the life on Earth are the result of natural and physical processes at work. The Earth is the product of the natural formation of planets and solar systems, all determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. Life arose spontaneously, and life as we know it today is the end product of eons of slow evolution, as per Charles Darwin’s explanation.
4) There no such thing as sin, only ‘coming up short’ perhaps, but no inherent flaws in human nature, and certainly no accountability to any divinity.
5) Jesus, if he actually existed, was just a nice teacher and wise sage, who never made any real claims to be divine, and who certainly never worked any real miracles, and who certainly never saved anyone’s ‘soul’. Like Buddha, Jesus was made out to be more than he really was by his zealous followers.
6) There is much evil in the world, both natural and man-caused. Hurricanes, floods and tsunamis, 9/11, the holocaust and the Spanish inquisition are classical examples. If there was a good God, he would prevent such things. But evil exists – therefore either God doesn’t exist, or he is evil himself, or perhaps a distant entity, powerless or non-caring.
7) This business of having faith and trust in a ‘god’ you can’t see is nonsense. There’s simply no reason to have ‘faith’ in ‘faith.’
Enough already? This list could be much longer. Jennifer found herself on the defensive, forced to face up to some of these age-old objections to her Christian faith. Sadly, she discovered that her sheltered home-spun friendly church background did not prepare her for such an onslaught. What to do? Smile and say nothing? Shrug her shoulders and give up? She realized that to say nothing was a form of concession and a confession of ignorance. Worse, she soon learned that quoting Bible verses and speaking in ‘church-talk’ only got a lot of raised eyebrows and dismissive remarks, and perplexed looks of ‘what on earth is she babbling about?’.
Feeling frustrated, Jennifer made a decision to seek help and answers. She went to see a few Christian pastors. Sadly, most had no idea what to tell her, as they were usually consumed with ‘in-church’ issues, or their theological foundations were weak or non-existent. The challenge of providing answers to the list of questions Jennifer had written down, and the idea of communicating the basics of Christianity to “secular” (non-spiritual, materialistic, worldly) unbelievers left them more than a bit embarrassed and befuddled. But finally one insightful pastor taught Jennifer about two powerful doctrines – doctrines that would allow her to declare her faith with boldness and clarity.
First of all, the pastor told Jenny to recognize her own limitations. “Jenny”, she said. “You simply won’t have ready answers to all the various objections your friends could dream up.” The pastor-lady pointed out that answers do exist, but seldom will a young Christian have the necessary background and training to deal with most of the classic objections. She told Jennifer that the makeup of secular society is extremely varied, ranging from those who have absolutely no idea of Christian concepts and vocabulary – they have heard of Jesus, and maybe Moses, but that’s about it. Many are indifferent and couldn’t care less about religious things. On the other hand, there are those who are very knowledgeable about Christian things, but are in a state of skepticism or rebellion, having been intimidated by the classic arguments against Christianity. Some have experienced or witnessed abuses or tragedy in their own lives or the lives of others, and are now in state of disillusionment with God and religion, especially organized religion.
Jennifer was counseled to carefully measure the time she would allow for high-heat-low-light dialogues and arguments, but also she must not try for quickie ‘sound-byte’ answers to complex questions. “Here is where you must go, Jenny,” said the pastor. “Stress the two basic doctrines of the Christian faith. First, the ‘bottom line’ of the Christian faith is: redemption – God seeking and redeeming those who are lost. Jesus lived and died to accomplish our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. He went through death on our behalf to get us back into a right relationship with our Creator. Second, the authentication of the Christian faith is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the event that Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday. If you read First Corinthians Chapter 15, Jenny, you will see that the apostle Paul presents the core of the Christian faith as these two teachings – with the resurrection of Jesus being the validation. Paul also points out that if the resurrection isn’t true, then – to use two common phrases – ‘we ain’t got nothin’, and we might as well ‘eat, drink, and be merry’. But the resurrection has been examined in meticulous detail by both Christian and secular scholars, and has become regarded as ‘the best established truth of ancient history’. A good presentation is Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Resurrection, available on Amazon.com and many local Christian bookstores. I have an extra copy in our church library that you can have. Also, reading the first few chapters of the book of Acts would convince anyone that the early church accepted the resurrection as absolute truth. Here’s the critically important implication of the resurrection; this event establishes the credibility of the life and teachings of Jesus. He is, therefore, the ‘real deal’. It follows that to ignore his teachings on sin, salvation, heaven, hell, and so forth, is to place one’s very soul in peril.”
“And of course, Jenny, your detractors will HATE hearing you say this to them, because, first, they usually struggle with basic Christian vocabulary. Examples would be like, ‘saved?’ – ‘saved’ from what?’ ‘Redemption’? – ‘isn’t that something like ‘buying back’, perhaps at a pawn shop?‘ ‘Resurrection from the dead’ – that sounds like fantasy fiction’. But worse, they sense that ‘Jesus-talk’ carries with it a suggestion of ultimate accountability to a ‘god’, something they are extremely uncomfortable with. And some of the more informed ones will certainly counterattack with augments against the reality of the resurrection – ‘it was made up by his overzealous followers’, ‘Jesus only ‘swooned’ – he never really died, he was part of a conspiracy, have you not read the Da Vinci Code?’ Or, ‘Isn’t it true that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and settled in what is now France?’ Others might say, ‘but why do I need to be ‘saved’? I’m a good person’. Others will say, ‘There are too many hypocrites in the churches. And isn’t Christianity discredited by those brutal crusades of antiquity?’ Or how about this one?- ‘Is my sweet little grandmother going to hell because she doesn’t go to church, while some serial killer in prison repents and gets ‘saved’?’ And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But, Jenny, you have to stand your ground, and insist on the truth of Jesus’ life and death to accomplish their redemption, and the truth of the resurrection as the validator of the Christian faith – and do it with gentleness and respect and a lot of patience. You will often find yourself in the teaching mode, where you will have to repeat and repeat these two basic doctrines. There will be times when you will have to admit that you do not have a ready answer to their many and varied objections – but insist that answers do exist, and you will try to find some resources for them to consult. And, to be fair, it’s a good idea to tell them that you appreciate their inquiring minds, and their willingness to ask questions and dialogue with you. Eventually, a few just might ‘come around’, so to speak, and realize their need to know and trust God, and actually reach out and grasp his offer of grace. You must plant these seeds in their minds and then allow the Spirit of God to take over – and, someday, there just might be a harvest.”
The pastor-lady went on to tell Jennifer. “Of course, for your own spiritual refreshment, you must attend a good Christ-loving Christian church that has a sound doctrinal statement – like this one you are visiting now, where you will be nurtured and where you can grow in your faith. Pray and ask the Spirit of God to give you the right words to say, and keep studying, so that you can become a ‘workman that does not need to be ashamed’, as per the biblical phrase. You must continue to hang out with Christian brothers and sisters, and you must maintain a personal standard of academic excellence. Then you can have a wonderful experience here at college, both academically and as a witness to our Christian faith.”
So what’s the golden nugget in this story? What can all of us take away? This: if you are a student like Jennifer (or soon to be one), at a secular university or academy, or if you are employed (or soon will be) at a secular company, then be prepared to be challenged with various arguments by folks who are disturbed or puzzled by your Christian ethics, demeanor, and manner of speech. You might have to endure the ‘cold shoulder’, or be thought of as a ‘weirdo’ or a ‘religious nutcase.’ That goes with the territory. But you have the two powerful doctrines discussed above to fall back on. They will sustain your wonderful opportunity and privilege to ‘stand up, stand up for Jesus’ and to ‘stand in the gap’ and show forth the love of Jesus Christ to a needy world. A high calling, and certainly not the easiest road to take – it’s definitely the proverbially ‘road less traveled’ – but it comes with wonderful reward, one day.