Andy Bannister is the Director and Lead Apologist for RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) Canada. He speaks around the world and has a PhD in Islamic Studies and authored An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an. Most recently, Andy wrote The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: Or the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments, an AMAZING Christmas gift for any of your atheist friends!
Andy and I start off our discussion by addressing the Gnostic gospels. Now, while author Dan Brown (DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons) has asserted the idea that there has been some kind of conspiracy behind the availability of the Gnostic Gospels, the truth is that just about anyone can find the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary or any of the others at any good bookstore.
But, what are the Gnostic gospels? Around 150-200 years after Jesus’ ascension, certain “Christian” groups decided that the historical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not enough, so they sprouted off their own sects based on these other literary works that are the Gnostic gospels. This happened sometime around 160-170 A.D. and onwards. And, this time gap is important, as it has been widely held amongst secular and religious scholars that the four historical gospels were all written within the lifetimes of the original witnesses, therefore its historical references could be verified. However, in the case of the Gnostic gospels, the time gap between their authorship and the events they describe is so large that most historians do not take them seriously. While they do tell us about what some early sects believed, they offer very little, if anything, about the historical Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Church has not repressed or hidden these “secret gospels”, but rather they simply recognize the historical validity of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as recognize the historically shaky ground that the Gnostic gospels are founded upon.
In fact, in light of this, Chuck Colson once said that he became a Believer because he realized while in prison that people can’t keep a secret. So the very idea that there might be a conspiracy behind the life of Jesus and this Gnostic religion formed out of a conspiracy would never truthfully happen because somebody would have talked!
Therefore, the decision we have to make is this: Is the Jesus described in the historical gospels telling the truth, or was he a liar or deceiver. This is the question that stands before all of us even today.
So when skeptics say, “You can’t believe the gospels. They’re simply made up stories”, Andy actually looks them straight in the eye and responds, “Get out. You’re really just ducking the question. The real question that you’re refusing to ask is, ‘Was Jesus who He claims to be? And by all means, if you hold that Jesus was a liar or a madman, then we can debate that, but skip the hogwash that the gospels are made up fiction.”
In fact, experts say that the Bible is actually the most scrutinized document in the history of mankind. And if the other religious texts around the world were to face the same kind of scrutiny, they would have been debunked centuries ago, some simply based on their grammatical merits.
Andy ran into this in his academic work in investigating the Qur’an. One example is when he spent about four years developing software to analyze the Qur’anic text. Now, the Bible was digitized and analyzed pretty much as soon as the technical abilities existed, yet no one had analyzed the Qur’an in the digital era.
Likewise, one thing that I’ve noticed in listening to many of today’s Atheists is that they’re just louder without accountability. Like calling the Bible a book of fairy tales and then dusting their hands off and walking away – it’s not really a cogent argument. In fact, if anything, it’s just lazy and incorrect.
As C.S. Lewis, renown author as well as expert on ancient mythology, once said: “If someone says to me that the Bible is fairy tales or fables, I ask them how many fables they’ve actually read. I’ve spent my entire academic life reading such myths and legends. I’m an expert on such things as Norse mythology and ancient pagan writings; and I can tell you that the Bible is simply not that type of literature. The gospels are actually written as historical biographies, not myth, legend, nor fiction. They contain eye-witness information, accurate information about politics, geography and contain deliberate references to historical figures and names that historians can corroborate. Now, we can debate whether or not the historical narratives Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote are accurate, but it is absolutely false that they were written as fairy tales.
Now, in regards to the Qur’an, when Thomas Jefferson was president, he attempted to have the Qur’an distributed to schoolhouses nationwide. He thought that Islam would become a clear and present threat to the Republic and he wanted our citizenry to be well versed in the Qur’an in order to know what to look out for. However, today’s Islamists have turned things around and attempt to alter history by claiming that Jefferson thought that the Bible and the Qur’an were compatible.
The reality is that they are not compatible at all. When you look at the type of civilization that Christianity birthed, Christianity was the cradle from which modern science developed. It did not develop in the Muslim world or Chinese civilization, but Christianity – as did the concept of human rights, free speech, democracy and many more of today’s freedoms that we take for granted. We can also look at art, music, literature, and architecture and so many other things that surround us in Western culture today and trace their roots to Christianity. So, when people want to compare things and say that Christianity is the same as Islam, I advice them to look beyond the text and look at each book’s legacy, and consider each book’s influence on the world today.
Now, thankfully it’s merely a (albeit significant) minority of Muslims around the world, but there are some that believe that the Qur’an and the life of Mohammad give a mandate for violent jihad. Consider what is currently happening in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. You can easily see this understanding of the Qur’an playing out in the philosophy of ISIS is Iraq and Syria, as ideas indeed have consequences.
You see, whether you believe in Christianity, Islam or even Atheism, what you believe matters and what cultures believe have global consequences.
And speaking of Atheism, I was listening to Bill Maher recently as he was proposing that all the world’s belief systems are the same. Well, if he’s that convicted of this idea, Andy and I think that we should raise up some funds and get Bill airfare to Saudi Arabia where he could discuss his ideas regarding the similarities of Islam and Christianity among the other religions of the world. You see, the truth is that Bill Maher is intelligent and he knows at the core of his being that Christianity is different from other religions – including the religion of Atheism. For instance, Bill couldn’t go to North Korea, stand up on a street corner and do a stand up comedy routine where he makes fun of the North Korean leadership. He’d learn the violent consequences of such an act very quickly in Pyongyang. In other words, Bill knows that he can do what he does and say what he says in America, because America is founded on Christian principles and is largely still a Christian nation. He can mock and make fun and still walk safely down the streets of our country without fear that a group of radical Baptists are going to bomb his hotel.
On a similar note, one of my favorite and most inspirational comedians as I was coming up was George Carlin. And, while I absolutely loved his early stuff, toward the end of his life, he became a lot more vitriolic towards religion – and, may I say, without much substance. He would stand on stage and say, “If there is a God, may he strike me down now!” Then he’d wait five seconds and say, “See, I’m still here, so there’s no God.” Apparently that’s as far as his intellectual rigor went in regards to God’s existence. But one thing he said in an interview that jumped out at me was: These young comics today think that making fun of politicians is edgy. The truth is that they need to get some cajones and make fun of Christianity. Now that’s edgy!
I just sat there and laughed while I wondered, where has he been? Comics have been making fun of Christianity for decades.
True bravery and edginess would be going to Iran and making fun of Mohammad.
As Andy says, he had more respect for the likes of Christopher Hitchens in his attack on religion in his book God is not Great where he was willing to stick his neck out and attack Islam. Where as Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the like tend to go for the easy, low hanging fruit and take easy quick shots at Christianity while they live safely in the society that Christianity bore.
Yet, the interesting thing about poking fun at religion is that the first person to do such a thing was Jesus Christ, Himself. In His day, Jesus had no time for a religion that was all about power and perhaps where our Atheist friends may hit a mark is in regards to their critique is the convergence of Christianity, power and politics. But you can’t stop there. That’s lazy. You need to work to correct what is wrong; and that is what Christ did when He preached. He brought the religious leaders down to size. He attacked empty religion, but then He pointed people to what was true.
So, my and Andy’s concern with today’s new Atheism is that anyone can easily sit there and throw stones at religion or even demolish and deconstruct people’s beliefs, but they also need to build up as well.
So, I’d love to ask Bill, “If religion is wrong, then tell me what should go in its place?”
Because empty-headed Atheism ultimately will not help people.
I recall busses sponsored by Atheists around the world that were driving around with signs that said, “There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your lives!”
But, if we all lived with that as our prevailing motto, what would a single mother trying to raise three kids on just a few hundred dollars per month, or if you’re homeless and a drug addict living under a bridge somewhere in downtown Manhattan, or if you live in Iraq today as your country burns… if I’m in the shoes of any of these people, why should I stop worrying?
Because, in light of the conditions that many people live in, it would seem (under the Atheist worldview) that simply world is a mess. There is no justice. There is no hope. And if this is true, then how could any of us stop from worrying and just enjoy our lives?
I also recall Bill recently saying that Atheism is not a religion. Rather, he referred to it as “an evidence based belief”. I was struck by this because I thought that the main reason why Atheists are Atheists was due to the “lack of evidence of a deity”. So, shouldn’t Bill’s definition be changed to “a lack of evidence based belief”?
Andy holds that Atheisms is actually very much a belief system very similar to the religions that they seem to abhor. If Atheism were purely an absence of belief, then Atheists would have the innate problem of identifying what an Atheist is. Is a brick an Atheist? A cat? A Toilet? None of these things believe in God, so they would qualify as Atheists under Bill’s description of simply “not believing in a god”. So, we need to be more specific. What they should say is that Atheism is: A lack of belief in God by a being who has the ability to form a belief, such as a human being.
But even then, if Atheism were genuinely “not believing”, then it wouldn’t cause anything. For instance, I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, but my lack of belief in the Tooth Fairy doesn’t cause me to write books explaining it. It doesn’t cause me to go to conferences regarding my unbelief, and so on and so forth. So, for something that is genuinely “unbelief”, Atheism actually looks really, really busy.
Andy’s other question that he’d love to ask Bill Maher is this: Atheism tells me what you don’t believe in, but it doesn’t tell me what you do. Again, I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, but my “A-Tooth-Farianism” doesn’t tell you what I believe in regards to justice, righteousness, liberty or other things that are very important to me. My “A-Tooth-Farianism” merely expresses one thing that I don’t believe.
Therefore, Andy simply doesn’t have the time for this “Atheism is not a belief” or “Atheism is not a religion” business. Because, even as Friedrich Nietzsche said, if you throw God out of the world’s equation, with God goes a lot of other things such as morality, and meaning and purpose in the world. It doesn’t matter what you do, we’re all going to burn into a fire at the end of it all. And, if there is no God, then there is no such thing as right or wrong or good or evil. Because only God could lay down a foundation that would divide between such things.
So, as Nietzsche said, if you’re going to be an Atheist, you better have the courage to recognize that with your Atheism comes an abandonment of all of those things which are dependent on God.
Now, he was a brave man.
I think, contrarily, Bill Maher is a lazy Atheist, quite frankly. I think he is a “Pollyanna Atheist” who wants to hold on to the cuddly things that he likes about Christianity: he wants to think that his life does have purpose; that there is such a thing such as justice and that life has meaning; while all the while he tries to chip away at the foundation of it all which is God, Himself.
Now, one of the things that Andy often teaches Christians to keep in mind when they are talking with their atheist friends is to look for the moment in the conversation that almost always arises when their atheist friend smuggles in a value judgment. This is what this looks like: As you are discussing life or current events, they say something to the effect of, “wow… that business going on in Iraq – that shouldn’t be allowed.”
This is an open door to ask, “Well, why shouldn’t it? According to atheism, everything is absolute and particles, so there is no particular way that the world ‘should be’. However, if there is a God who designed and created the universe and all things, then there truly is a divine design that would prescribe how things ‘should be’. And, just like if you were to attempt to use a lawnmower to clean a swimming pool, I’d think you’re crazy because a lawnmower isn’t designed to clean a pool; so would it be crazy to go about our human lives against the design and intentionality that God has instilled in us as His creation.”
Then, switching subjects, Andy and I talk about atheistic philosopher and author John Gray. Now, much like Nietzsche, Gray is continually attempting with all his might to be a consistent as he possibly can. In doing so, Gray has concluded that if there is no God, then humans are merely animals. But, just as we have determined within the human species that we are all created equal despite our race or heritage, in Gray’s understanding, all animals are equal. Therefore there is no more value bestowed upon a human than a cockroach.
Now, it might appear that Gray’s conclusions are rather bleak, but what he tries to do is merely describe what our existence is and will be in the absence of God. Some may say it’s depressing, but John would simply say that it’s real, and therefore we need to be very courageous and just grin and bare it in the face of this grim universe.
He’s the kind of guy that I wish Bill Maher would bring onto his show. It would be enlightening for Bill’s viewers to hear from a real, honest and thoughtful atheist, rather than a glammed up, botoxed Hollywood version of atheism that says we can all live peacefully without God.
Gray has sold over 10 million copies of his book, Straw Dogs – which derives its title from a Buddhist tradition of burning straw versions of animals for in sacrifice and parallels Gray’s assertion that we humans are no different: just straw dogs waiting for our ultimate annihilation from the burning up of our sun and universe. (I told you he was bleak)
Now, Gray’s view seems to be in alignment with an ongoing shift in western civilization’s belief system. A recent British poll said that 20 years ago, something like 80% of people thought that mankind were responsible for their own actions. However, nowadays, polls reflect nearly the opposite: that a vast majority of people believe that we are not responsible for our own actions, and experts attribute this shift to John Gray and an adoption of his brand of philosophy. Andy feels that this shift reflects the change in our curriculum over the past 20 years that basically has taken God out of the classroom and teaches that we humans are merely animals and all animals are equal. Over time, this has spawned an attitude of “We simply can’t change things” and hopelessness within our entire culture.
What’s interesting is the more practical repercussions of this shift: There has been a steep downturn in the percentage of eligible citizens showing up to vote at each election, due to the prevalent belief that all politicians are the same and their vote can’t change anything and is meaningless. There is also the increase of unambitious “pajama boys” who behave as if there is no incentive or meaning in striving for achievement since it’s all meaningless. One can only guess what is coming down the pike for our culture in another 20 years with this type of undercurrent (or even blatant teaching) running through our public education system.
On a personal note, I look at western culture’s growing apathy as a huge red flag waving in the wind. I very vividly recall what it was like to be married to my wife as an atheist and then agnostic compared to loving her as a Christian; and the progression from acrimony to apathy was near-deadly for our marriage. Only with an understanding of Christian love and God’s love for His creation did I learn how to live with and love my wife in a healthy and dynamically growing way.
I see a similar attitude in our young people today toward their country as my wife and I had toward one another in my ambivalent days: “What’s the use? What’s the point? Why vote?” And that is more frightening to me than aggressive protesters whom I may in direct disagreement with. I trace this back to an episode of Oprah soon after the L.A. riots in the 1990’s. She had the looters in the audience along with the business owners that were affected by the violence. What was striking was the fact that many of the looters didn’t think that what they had done was wrong. And eventually, a sociologist joined the program and stated that in America’s inner cities, there’s a belief system that says that if you’re not strong enough to hold onto what you own, it can be had by anyone.
Maybe Oprah didn’t know it, but that’s Darwinism!
Or, as Andy remembers, in the 1960’s there was the idea sweeping through our universities that morality was merely a social construct and God was dead. And then, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, these 1960’s collegians were now heads of business and financial institutions working out this philosophy, and that’s how we got Enron and the mortgage crisis.
Now, hand in hand with all this – as Andy puts it – is the belief that all religions are the same. But the truth is that Christianity is completely unique from all the other religions, faiths and ideologies of the world in regards to our ultimate hope. As Christians, we believe that we will ultimately encounter God and know Him for eternity. The Bible says that Adam and Eve walked with God and knew Him intimately, and we believe that we humans will one day be restored to that relationship with Him.
Contrast this to Islam, which holds that we will not meet God, nor walk with Him, because God is distant and not relational. Instead, the faithful Muslim is promised rivers of wine, beautiful fruit trees and sparkling fountains of water. And for the men, according to many understandings of the Qur’an, dozens of virgins and endless sex. Now, according to Andy, when you think about it, however good the wine might be, however enjoyable the sex or fruit trees might be, there will become a point when you become bored. It may take 1,000 years, but you will eventually get bored because these things cannot satisfy. Then what will you do?
Whereas, according to Christianity, we never will experience boredom because eternity is much more than a nice experience, but rather a relationship with an infinite God. And Christianity is the only religion that offers this. In Islam, the ultimate goal is pleasure, in Buddhism it’s annihilation, in Hinduism it’s the escape from this endless cycle of birth and rebirth, in atheism it’s nothingness. Only Christianity tells you that walking with and dwelling with God is the ultimate destination.
The Bible even talks about this in Ecclesiastes. Solomon, who had hundreds of wives, and engorged himself with every type of pleasure known to man, was eventually led to boredom and apathy. He then understood that life without God has no meaning. Without meaning, there is no purpose; and without purpose, you might as well kill yourself.
Andy enjoys mountain climbing, and he likens life as trying to climb an ice slope. The question is, as you’re climbing the slope of life, what is it that you’re clipped into that will stop you from sliding into oblivion? In today’s world, many might cling to “stuff” to find fulfillment, and if money were no option, then a hedonistic lifestyle would fit the bill. But as Solomon found out, so would anyone else – eventually it’s all in vain. You’d think that we would have learned these lessons from past generations, but I meet guy after guy – high powered executives who seem to have worked hard and have everything they want in life – but who are on their third and fourth marriages. And with few exceptions, they go back to their first wife and can pinpoint where they went wrong at the start.
I’ve heard it said that marriages go through three phases: The Honeymoon Phase, the Disillusionment Phase, and then the Commitment Phase. The trick is making it to the third phase.
Similarly, I see my own relationship with Christ going through the same three phases. In the Disillusionment Phase, I realized that I couldn’t live the perfect Christian life, but I could love God (and my wife, for that matter), which would lead me into the Commitment Phase – not by doing the perfect things, but by loving as God prescribes.
But, just like I see these executives bail on their marriages in the Disillusionment Phase, I see people constantly bailing on Jesus in their own Disillusionment Phase of their Christian journey. They think that because they hit their knees in the throws of an emotional moment that their worries and fears are done with forever, and they tend to abandon their faith before understanding love as God designed it.
Too often, people view Christianity – and love for that matter – as a certain group of feelings. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote, Satan tries to plant the seeds of ideas in our minds that our Christian walks, specifically our prayer lives, only matters if it’s filled with the right feeling. Because if we are convinced of this idea, and find ourselves on our knees praying without experiencing that feeling, then we stop thinking, listening to God and growing.
However, if our Christianity – and our marriages – is based on the certainty (versus emotions) and commitment, then we can discover true love and the life-long enjoyment of love’s Commitment Phase.
And, as Andy says, the crazy thing is that Christianity begins quite oppositely than what we would guess. Before we played a role, God was already in the Commitment Phase with each of us. As the Book of Romans says, that even while we were sinners and enemies of God, He sent His Son, Jesus to die for us and pay our sacrifice with His own blood for our sins. It’s like God is saying, “I’m not asking you to do anything that I haven’t already done for you.” Too many times, people hit their Disillusionment Phase and feel that God is asking too much of them in order to live out a life as a Christ-follower, but God sits there and says, “I’ve already done it all through my Son!”
You see, Christianity is based in truth, not emotion. It’s founded on the objective reality of what God has done through Jesus on the cross. It’s true not because it makes us feel good, but because it is simply fundamentally, TRUE.