Thank God for the Skeptics!
An Assessment of, and Appreciation for, those who are Critical of Christianity
By: Brian Lawson
I think of all of the places I’ve encountered them. I have found some of them at school as my teachers. There they announced their scientific theories that supposed no need for God. Some detailed their views of ancient history that posed a secular analysis of the historic faith of Christianity. Also, I have encountered others like them while reading the newspaper or watching television. These have often criticized the Christian faith by highlighting the actions and inconsistencies of some Christians as if every Christian did the same. And though I have encountered them in school and in the media, I have often found them in more personal places. They have been the people that I work with, or the friends and acquaintances that I make in the world at large. I have found them in my own family. Most often I discover them when I am trying to share my faith and they respond only with their doubts. Their doubts have bothered me, their analysis of the data has disturbed me, and their questions often startle me. I have encountered them and their criticism all over the place. They are "the skeptics."
With a new information media well under way on the internet, guess what? The skeptics are all over the place. Just try looking up a Christian issue or a Bible related topic on the web and you will certainly find a number of links that are critical to Christianity and the reliability of Scripture.
In spite of their doubts, objections, criticisms, questions, and their reasons to deny many things (if not everything) that I believe as a Christian, I’ve adopted a surprising appreciation for what is accomplished through them. For you see, I thank God for the skeptics. Perhaps you don’t share my appreciation for skeptics, so let me explain why I am thankful for them.
First, let me assure you that I realize that a sizeable group of skeptics are blatantly opposed to God. They voice their questions and objections to Christianity out of a desire to keep themselves and others from ever believing and accepting the gospel. I have considered them to be "de-evangelists" who are bent on "deconverting" the masses. One former Christian turned atheist and critic of the Bible says this, "When deep-seated doubts finally led me to abandon the ministry, I wasn't content to be just a skeptic; I had to become an evangelical atheist." (1)
But not every skeptic is opposed. Some of them are seekers. Lee Strobel, in "The Case for Faith" says it well:
But faith isn’t always that easy, even for people who desperately want it. Some people hunger for spiritual certainty, yet something hinders them from experiencing it. They wish they could taste that kind of freedom, but obstacles block their paths. Objections pester them. Doubts mock them. Their hearts want to soar to God; their intellects keep them securely tied down. (2 )
And Strobel writes also:
....For me, having lived much of my life as an atheist, the last thing I want is a naive faith built upon a paper-thin foundation of wishful thinking or make-believe. I need a faith that’s consistent with reason, not contradictory to it; I want beliefs that are grounded in reality, not detached from it. I need to find out once and for all whether the Christian faith can stand up to scrutiny. (3)
Not everyone voicing criticism or objection does so with ill motives. Simply, many seekers voice their skepticism based on what they know and how they understand the claims of Christianity in the world that they live in. They have a right to ask their hard questions. They are reasonable to point out our apparent inconsistencies. They have a right to state the evidence that seems to them a good reason for unbelief. They want good evidence for placing their faith in the claims of Christianity and they are reasonable to ask for it.
Although I assure you that I realize a difference between the seeking skeptic and the kind that is set on opposing Christianity, I thank God for all of them.
So, why am I thankful to God for the Skeptics?
Over one year ago, I joined an e-mail list supported on the Secular Web where participants discuss Christianity(4). Most participants on that list are atheists, and some are unbelievers of other varieties. There are a few Christians there, but mostly one big cluster of skeptics. During my participation on the list, I have been faced with many troubling questions and criticisms of my faith. At the beginning, I was wondering what in the world I had jumped into. These skeptics weren’t what I had imagined. They were not ignorant of the Bible. As a matter of fact, most of them know more of the Bible’s contents than many Christians that I know. They especially reminded me of all the difficult passages in the Bible. On many occasions, I was troubled by their arguments. I didn’t have all of the answers that I had hoped to have. I was experiencing much of what Glenn Miller wrote in his advice to Christians who are about to venture into today’s internet websites that are critical to Christianity:
No matter how much you ‘know your stuff’ or how long you have walked with Him or how many questions of your own He has answered, your spirit will be troubled. No matter how many prayers have been answered (beyond the range of statistical probability) or how much character transformation you have personally experienced (beyond the range of self-help methodologies) or how many skeptics you have seen come to trust in this Living Lord, your spirit will be troubled. (5)
In addition to that, I was finding some of the opposing skeptics to be downright mean and arrogant. Often in mocking tones, they would belittle not only my faith, but also me as a thinking individual. This made the whole experience rather depressing at times.
Still wondering what I think is good about all of this? In spite of all that I said above, I learned some valuable lessons during the time that I have spent with skeptics - of all kinds. I believe that God has used them to help me grow in a lot of ways.
First, I discovered that the unbelieving skeptic can teach the believer a more thorough way to follow the apostle Paul’s advice in I Thessalonians 5:21, "But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;"(NAS). All too often, Christians (including myself) are too eager to accept a fine sounding idea from one of our fellow Christians without really putting it to the test. We think, "It is from a Christian (perhaps a popular teacher or preacher), so it must be right." But consider this:
If the Skeptic sometimes seems to have a higher priority on negativism, then we Christians are guilty sometimes of avoiding it all together. If the Skeptic is guilty sometimes of seeing problems where none exist, then we Christians are guilty sometimes of NOT seeing problems where they DO exist. (6)
I thank God for the skeptics, because He has used them to teach me to examine the ideas posed by other Christians to see if they really are true and/or biblically sound. Skeptics have a knack for not taking anything at face value. They are not afraid to turn everything upside down and inside out. I have found a lot of value from being a little bit more like them in that regard, without going to the same extremes.
Another valuable discovery while encountering skeptics has been finding that the skeptic is willing to do what we Christians seem unwilling to do at times. When it comes to our own doubt and uncertainties, we believers tend to be hesitant to deal with them on our own.
For many Christians, merely having doubts of any kind can be scary. They wonder whether their questions disqualify them being a follower of Christ. They feel insecure because they’re not sure whether it’s permissible to express uncertainty about God, Jesus, or the Bible. So they keep their questions to themselves - and inside, unanswered, they grow and fester and loom until they eventually succeed in choking out their faith. (7)
The skeptics I have encountered have put their questions and doubts in my face and have said, "Deal with it!" God has used them to help me "deal with" my own questions that I have merely glossed over in the past. Instead of taking a troubling issue or Bible passage "on faith", I’ve learned to "deal with" them until I have a clear understanding and a more solid basis for acceptance. I thank Him for using them that way.
Next, God has used the skeptics to show me that I don’t know as much as I think that I do about the Bible, my faith, or life in general. They have posed many questions to me. Sometimes I have had some answers, and many times not much of an answer. This has caused me to discipline myself to regular reading, to deeper study, and more thoughtful observation of the world around me. Thank God for them, because I may not have otherwise been as motivated to expand my mind.
Finally, I have found the greatest value in encountering the skeptics and all of their tough questions because it has brought me closer to God.
Doubt, like any need of ours, must be brought to Him for His action. Our questions are typically His tools in our lives - to teach us to trust him, to be patient, to be fearless, to be honest, and to be diligent and humble in study. (8)
I have been spurred on to a lot of growth and maturity through study, but mostly through drawing near to God with difficult questions from skeptics - questions that I thought I could just handle on my own. There have always been more questions than answers. In the face of many doubts, I’ve found greater insight in His presence. He has taught me to be patient. He has taught me that He doesn’t always help me find all of the answers when I would like to have them. I have learned more of Him, and have come to know Him in a more personal way by bringing these things to Him. All of this God has accomplished through those you might least expect - the skeptics. So I thank God for them.
Overall, in the face of objections, questions, and many criticisms that have promoted doubt in my mind and heart, my faith has grown because it has been tested under a lot of fire. God has used the skeptics and all of their doubts to increase my faith and help me see that it is on solid ground.
In spite of everything that I’ve said here, many Christians may still not be too thankful to God for the skeptics. After all, the opposing type of skeptic can do a lot of damage. They can confuse people enough that some have turned from faith in God and the message of Christ. But I am reminded of one of the first zealous skeptics toward Christianity - one who greatly opposed the church. He wrote years after his conversion:
... I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1:13-16, NAS)
Whatever your opinion is of any skeptic, don’t ever forget about their value to God. Wherever you meet them in life, hear their questions. Listen to their objections. They may be "the skeptics". But, no matter how we label them, they are still human beings that Jesus died for. So, pray for them, and always demonstrate the love of Christ with any skeptic that you encounter.
2) Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, page 8.
3) Ibid, page 11.
4) This e-mail discussion list is offered at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Xianity and is called the "Xianity" mailing list. When this article was originally written, that mailing list was supported by the Secular Web at http://www.infidels.org and was at that time called the "Xtianity" mailing list.
7) Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, page 226.
*) Special Note: The links for the Christian Think Tank provide some helpful advice to those who have not encountered well informed skeptics. See also - http://www.christian-thinktank.com/trouble.html
Look for The Case for Faith at https://www.christianbook.com home of CBD, Christian Book Distributors.
END Revised: 09/22/04