I just finished Rebecca McLaughlin’s incredible new book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. It is a rigorous, compelling, and fresh defense of the Christian faith, centered on 12 hard and perennial questions.
Like a well designed sword, Confronting Christianity strikes a good balance—it doesn’t just apologetically parry; it thrusts with gospel power. And yet the wound it aims to inflict is the wound of love. As Augustine said long ago, God shoots the arrows of His word to turn us into His lovers. The book has a strong evangelical tone throughout, and in more than one place I wept at the beauty of the gospel flying off the page. This book won’t just shut mouths, it will open hearts.
Yes, Another Book on Apologetics
But do we really need another book answering the hard questions against Christianity? Isn’t it enough that we already have Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith or David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions? Or Origen’s Contra Celsum for that matter? Haven’t all these questions been answered again and again? Aren’t we just circling the wagons at this point? Do people write these just because they know they sell? And besides, can anyone beat Tim Keller in this game?
I think there are good reasons to welcome another addition to this genre. Just as every generation translates for itself anew, every generation must also answer for itself anew. Peter tells the church to be “always ready for a defense to everyone who asks” for an account concerning our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). “Always” points to a readiness that extends across all of history and “everyone” includes every cultural perspective. This means that our answers must be adapted and newly contextualized every few years, so that they make the most sense in, and leave the greatest impact on, whatever time and place we find ourselves in. Although many of the hardest questions against Christianity have been around for 2,000 years, new ones arise and new people ask. Even the old ones gain fresh traction based on how history unfolds. So there is always a need for us to update unchanging truth with new logic, new light, and new illustrations. As Witness Lee never tired of repeating: “We cannot change the truth, but we should always improve on the method.”
Where it Shines
McLaughlin has clearly learned a lot from her predecessors here. But her contribution doesn’t just rehash stock answers; it really feels like an advance, again, in clarity, rigor, force, and freshness. Her honesty and openness was another factor that gave the book its humanity. Many of the base-line responses weren’t new to me. I could have given someone the gist of many of these answers. But what makes this book so great is the way McLaughlin responds. To use a soccer example, it’s not just that she can shoot and score goals, but that she has incredible touch and can execute some impressive moves. She doesn’t just win the game; she makes the highlight reel.
Another thing that makes this book effective and compelling is the contemporary examples McLaughlin employs from recent news events, scandals, and cultural shifts within the last 5 years or so. This gives the book a “nowness” that is by default missing from older apologetic works. And it shows that the questions Christianity has to answer are real and all around us, not just philosophical / academic disputes. The book is an opportunity to think Christianly about these issues in almost real-time. McLaughlin turns these recent events into gospel floodlights that expose the sinful beasts hiding in the dark thickets of our nature and call us all to repentance.
Some parts that I thought particularly good were:
- Her seven counterintuitive biblical principles that highlight that, “no, we wouldn’t be better off without religion.” (Ch. 1)
- Her seven critiques of the common example that all religions are just like blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. (Ch. 3)
- Her lengthy discussion of Hitler’s use of religion and science for violent and evil ends. (Ch. 5)
- “Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?” was a full on blitz that had the QB frantically running further and further back from the line of scrimmage until he got sacked in his own end zone! (Ch. 7)
- “Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?” is so thorough and good and needed right now. One of my favorite chapters. (Ch. 8)
- Her reading of John 11 as a paradigm for facing suffering was really good and insightful (Ch. 11)
- Her approach to “How could a loving God send people to hell?” was not what you’d expect and the contemporary examples helped press the issue beyond rational argument to powerful appeal. (Ch. 12)
Of course, answering Christianity’s “cultured despisers” of the day is never the end all, be all of the faith. There is much more to the faith than what Confronting Christianity contains. Rebecca McLaughlin no doubt knows this. But for that growing number of people in America who are being raised in a post-Christian society or for those who have given up on Christianity for various reasons, this book presents a passionate and level-headed case for accepting Jesus’ mind-blowing offer of eternal life with all its glorious concomitants.
Below are twenty (or so) quotes from the book that I enjoyed! It was hard to pare down this list, and there are many great parts of the book that aren’t reducible to a well-crafted sentence or two. But here you are!
Often, when we observe from a distance, we misinterpret. Look up at the night sky and you will see much darkness. But train a telescope on the blackest patch, and a million galaxies explode into view. (15)
To say religion is bad for you is like saying, “Drugs are bad for you,” without distinguishing cocaine from life-saving medication. (21)
No matter what we currently believe, we must all confront Christianity: the most widespread belief system in the world, with the most far-reaching intellectual footprint, and a wealth of counterintuitive wisdom concerning how humans should thrive. (31)
Calling Christianity “Western” is like calling literacy “Western”… The idea that Christianity is a diversity-resistant, white Western religion of privilege is utterly irreconcilable with the New Testament… Christianity is the most ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, and racially diverse belief system in all of history. (34, 36, 37)
The New Testament is one of the most emphatically anti-racist texts ever written… Read the New Testament, and you will find that trying to marry biblical Christianity to white-centric nationalism is like trying to marry a cat to a mouse: one is designed to hunt the other, not mate with it. (44)
When examined more closely, attempting to persuade others to change their beliefs is a sign of respect. You are treating them as thinking agents with the ability to decide what they believe, not just products of their cultural environment. We should not be offended when people challenge our beliefs: we should be flattered! (49)
Ethical principles are no more divine whims than the laws of gravity. With a theistic worldview, morality and reality spring from the same source… The question of coherence is central to the challenge of atheist morality. The point is not that nonreligious people cannot construct and live by frameworks that uphold human equality. They can. But today’s secular humanism offers a worldview in which morality and reality are at odds: Human beings are a collection of atoms laboring under a false belief that they are even moral agents. And yet humans are of immense, equal, and inalienable worth. (72-73)
Hitler’s belief in racial hierarchy was supported by many scientists of the day, both in Germany and abroad. This must make us cautious when people suggest that we can replace religion with science and expect a better world to emerge. Science is not designed to give us morals. It can help us build chemical weapons and chemotherapy drugs, but it cannot tell us whether and when to use them. (89)
The facts about ourselves and our world that are measurable by science may be the easiest to verify [but not the most important]. What formula governs the speed at which an object falls to the ground? How high is the window ledge on which I’m standing? But were I to jump, no news report would confine itself to the exact distance form the ledge to the ground, or the precise effects of the impact on my body. The primary question people would ask would not be how but why. While discovery how can be important, knowing how someone died does not exhaust the story. Like the notes for the right and left hand in a piano sonata, the measurable script and the meaning script do not jostle for position. Both are needed to give a full picture… The primacy of meaning-seeking over fact-finding illuminates the biblical creation accounts… The lack of scientific detail is not an oversight. Rather, it is a deliberate prioritization of a more important message. (120-121)
If we are no more than the features that can be described by science, and our only story is the evolutionary story, we have no grounds for insisting on human equality, protection of the weak, equal treatment of women, or any of the other ethical beliefs we hold dear. (122)
When atheists reject Christianity because of the evils done in the name of religion, we must recognize that evil has also been done in the name of science. And that it is ultimately only a religious worldview that enables us to diagnose evil as evil. (123)
The idea of a Creator God does not sound quite so crazy when you realize that the best current alternative explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life is the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes [each governed by different laws and defined by different universal constants, all of which are governed by a set of unexplained meta-laws that govern the multiverse]. (128)
Recognizing that marriage (at its best) points to a much greater reality relieves the pressure on all concerned. First, it depressurizes single people… Miss out on sex, we are told, and you miss out on life. But within a Christian framework, missing marriage and gaining Christ is like missing out on playing with dolls as a child, but growing up to have a real baby. When we are fully enjoying the ultimate relationship, no one will lament for the loss of the scale model. (141)
Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not on a gendered psychology but on Christ-centered theology… Viewed closely, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of “traditional” gender roles that have often amounted to privileging men and patronizing women. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the brutal axe of the gospel. This is no return to Victorian values. Rather, it is a call to pay attention to the character of Christ. (141-142)
We will never understand the Bible’s call on men and women unless we see Jesus as the ultimate man. He had strength to command storms, summon angel armies, and defeat death. But his arms held little children, his words elevated women, and his hands reached out to heal the sick… No one who uses the Bible’s teaching on marriage to justify chauvinism, abuse, or denigration of women has looked at Jesus. (143)
People sometimes say that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships. It does not. The Bible commands same-sex relationships at a level of intimacy that Christians seldom reach… one-body unity is not just for husbands and wives: it’s for everyone [1 Cor 10:16-17]… Friendship is not the consolation prize for those who fail to gain romantic love… The Bible is clear that sexual intimacy belongs exclusively to heterosexual marriage. But the one-body reality of gospel partnership—best experienced in same-sex friendships—is not a lesser thing [John 15:13]. (155-156)
In our sexualized world, we might think that a deeply meaningful hug with a friend or a loving arm around our shoulders is inevitably dwarfed by the greater physical intensity of sex. But while sexual contact may involve a more powerful physiological response, it is not necessarily more intimate… Rather than seeing sexual and romantic love as the high point on a scale where friendship laps at the low-water mark, the Bible invites us to pursue human love in different forms, governed by different boundaries. The same Scriptures that say no to same-sex sexual intimacy say a massive yes to intimacy of other kinds. Indeed, deep, Jesus-centered intimacy around shared mission should leave any cheap, hook-up versions of sexual intimacy in the dust. (159)
At the resurrection, no one who has chosen Jesus over sexual fulfillment will have missed out. Compared with that relationship, human marriage will seem like a toy car next to a Tesla, or a kiss on an envelope versus a lover’s embrace. (174)
Suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has always been built. (194)
Jesus knows the end of the story, when he will wipe every tear from our eyes. But this does not stop him from cleaving to us in our pain. In fact, pain is a place of special intimacy with him… We can laugh with anyone. But we cry with those closest to us; and the bond is strongest when their suffering connects with ours. (201)
From an atheist perspective, not only is there no hope of a better end to the story; there is no ultimate story. There is nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. From a Christian perspective, there is not only hope for a better end; there is intimacy now with the One whose resurrected hands still bear the scars of the nails that pinned him to his cross. Suffering is not an embarrassment to the Christian faith. It is the thread with which Christ’s name is stitched into our lives. (205)
Many people conclude… that the end point of Christianity is a return to Eden. But when we examine this idea, we realize that it renders the whole of human history a cosmic waste of time… The Bible’s “new creation” is not just a return to the idyllic old. It is far better. In the early Genesis narrative, Adam and Eve knew God as Creator and Lord—perhaps, even, as friend. But Christians know Jesus far more intimately: as Savior, Lover, Husband, Head, Brother, Fellow Sufferer, and their Resurrection and their Life. The first humans could not have dreamed of this earth-shattering intimacy with God. (205-206)
The God of the Bible is the God from whom we cannot hide. And yet the searchlight that could expose us as fugitive criminals is trained on us as lost children. This God is looking for us, longing for us, calling to us to come home… “In Christ, we are not pursued like wanted criminals, but like wanted children.” (214)