Critique of "Reasons Skeptics Should Consider Christianity" by Josh McDowell and Don Stewart
Josh McDowell, organizer and minister to the Campus Crusade for Christ, co-wrote with Don Stewart, the infamous book Reasons Skeptics Should Consider Christianity. The introduction states that Reasons was "written to give various reasons why we believe in the inspiration of the Bible as God's message to man." Almost in anticipation of, or perhaps in guilt of their deception, the authors go on to explain that it is "not meant to be a scholarly treatise, rather is has been written to increase the understanding of the average person." This disclaimer should forewarn any serious reader right away, not because all arguments must be presented in some kind of highbrow "scholarly" manner, but because the risk for fallacy is much higher when the material is "played down" right in the introduction. As we shall see, Reasons scarcely addresses the real concerns of skeptics at all, and the book can hardly be called apologetic in this regard.
McDowell's Reasons has been cited often in Christian circles as a definitive work deserved of serious consideration before the skeptic dismisses Christianity a priori. Mr. McDowell is a graduate of Wheaton College and Talbot Theological Seminary. His background is pure apologetics, bible inerrancy, and evangelism; he is particularly weak in the areas of solid biblical criticism and expected scholarly inductive reasoning. But he has gained a powerful reputation as a national speaker and leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ, a ministry that focuses on converting college students to Christianity. In the Christian community his prowess for apologetics is such that many Christians feel completely justified in throwing the man's name around as proof of biblical truths. Because McDowell desires to reach out to the skeptic and Reasons often pops up in conversations among skeptics and believers alike, a critique of the book is long overdue.
Reasons is written in two parts. The first part devotes 98 pages to the Bible and the second part just over 125 pages to the theory of evolution with a smattering of astrophysics. McDowell presents his apologetics in a highly readable, informal, Q&A style followed by a short list of additional suggested references for the reader who wishes to read what other apologists have to say on the question. Each of McDowell's questions will be critiqued in the same manner so that the reader familiar with Reasons may reference the topic.
What does it mean, The Bible is inspired?
A 2 Timothy 3:16 says that "(a)ll scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." Inspired means God-breathed. Therefore, although the authors of the books of the Bible were human, their words were not merely the words of men, but divinely inspired by God Himself.
Critique Non sequitur. (It does not follow) The premise made here is that because the author of Second Timothy believes that all scripture is "God-breathed" then all of the other books of the bible are divinely inspired too. However, no attempt is made to support the latter statement, and the former non sequitur engages in circular reasoning saying only that the bible is true because the bible says that the bible is true. Additionally, 2 Timothy was anonymously written, hence we have no information on who the author was, let alone whether we should take his word for books written by other authors. Due to historical errors in the Bible, e.g., Mark's report of John the Baptist's execution where Herodias is said to be the wife of Philip (historically it was Antipas) and Herod was said to be king, rather than tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, lead us to conclude that some of the Bible is error-prone. There are many examples like these in the Bible where facts are reported which do not agree with agreed-upon history. This does not make the Bible "wrong" or "false" merely human, since humans do make mistakes.
A The Apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that "all Scripture is inspired of God." Also the entire Bible is inspired, not just certain parts, because it ends by saying, "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book." (Revelation 22:18, 19 ) The bible must be the invention either of good men or angels, bad men or devils, or of God. Good men or angels would not be physically able to make a book that put words into God's mouth and badmen or devils would not make a book that damned themselves to eternal hell, so it must be the third alternative; the Bible must be given by divine inspiration.
Critique Trifurcation. This "trilemma" fallacy occurs when a very complex issue is being presented with only three (tri)alternative solutions when in fact many alternatives may be possible. The bible may have been composed by many different people over a period of hundreds of years, many without the knowledge of the other's actions, and hence without a motive for evil or for good. Many books in the bible, such as the Song of Solomon, were written for pleasure and not to advance an agenda or a "truth."
A While men may be fallible, it is not necessarily true that they cannot produce an infallible document and they do not necessarily have to make mistakes. And because the Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that the scripture is God-breathed and Titus 1:2 says that God cannot lie, these men had to produce an infallible Bible.
Critique Ad hoc. McDowell provides an argument instead of a reason or a premise to his overall argument. It has not been established that the Bible is infallible, only alluded to circularly. The argument that it is possible to produce a document error-free is a red herring to the issue at hand. This statement relies heavily on the ignorance of the reader and assumes that they do not know about the history of how the various books of the canonized Bible were written, translated, amended, and formulated over the centuries preceding the early Church's final approval and canonization of the 66 books that now make up the Bible. We know that dozens of varying and sometimes contradictory Gospels existed during the first two centuries of the Common Era (for instance Marcion's early Gnostic texts) before the "final four" were approved of by Church authority and intimidation.
A We can accept the twelve letters of the Apostle Paul as true because the apostle says that he received a unique revelation from God (Galatians 1:11 ). Paul did not pass on his revelation incorrectly because Paul writes in Titus that "God cannot lie" and therefore Paul cannot put incorrect words into God's mouth. Also, Paul's revelation was a "yardstick" given to him in order to measure the truth of other scriptures as he says to the Galatians (1:8) . Further, Paul's message bears the stamp of divine authority when he says "If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment." (1 Corinthians 14:37 ) Lastly, Simon Peter, a disciple, confirmed that Paul's writings were of divine authority.
Critique Non sequitur an ad hoc fallacies. Much is assumed prima facie in McDowell's argument. He assumes that Paul cannot lie because God will not allow it; that God gave truths to Paul as a "yardstick" to measure those very same truths; and most absurd, Paul is not lying because Paul tells us that he is not lying. The believer (for whom McDowell's book was written) having been conditioned to accept these crucial premises, will not even think to question these fallacies, but the skeptic for whom the book is supposedly written for, cannot get past these problems, let alone discuss anything further.
A Jesus was asked about the time of His second coming and responded, "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." (Mark 13:32 ) Other instances such as with Mark 5:30 , 5:9 , and 6:38 , Jesus appears to not know the answers to questions he asks. Although these passages make Jesus look fallible, he was truly God as well as truly man. He was the God-man. As a man there were some things he was ignorant of, but as God He possessed all knowledge. As noted in Philippians 2:5-11 , there were certain rights that He voluntarily laid aside to become human, but He still led a sinless life. When Jesus appears to not know the answer and asks questions (as in Mark) it is only from a rhetorical viewpoint or for the conversant's sake. There is not indication from the Gospel record that Jesus' finitude deterred his ministry or teaching, and whatever those limitations might have been, they were still far above the normal man. Finally John 12:48 states that Jesus will be the final arbitrar on all matters of judgment so our lives need to be based on His word.
Critique This answer uses ad hoc and asks us to take the word of the Apostle Paul who never knew Jesus personally, but insists to the Philippians that nevertheless Jesus was infallible. Additionally, even if Jesus' limitations did not deter his mission (to preach repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God upon earth) this does not address the issue of infallibility. McDowell argues by equivocation by using man/God interchangeably and insisting that Jesus was both, all without offering the skeptic a reason for believing this to be the case.
A The narrative of Noah and the great flood not only is authenticated by Jesus (Matthew 24:37 ), but it is also used as an example of His second coming. Also, the most unbelievable of all--the account of Jonah and the great fish--is used by Jesus as a sign of His resurrection in Matthew 12:39ff . To conclude, Jesus saw the OT as being God's word. Jesus' attitude toward the OT was nothing less than total trust.
Critique Red herring. The opinions of the NT Jesus regarding the OT scriptures has no bearing on why a skeptic should consider Christianity. All we are informed of here is what Jesus thought of the scriptures; not so relevating since it is well known that Jews observed the Law and regarded the OT scriptures as holy. This question and answer is almost completely irrelevant to the questioning skeptic and perhaps is only included in order to make an argument against a rival Christian sect that views the OT as obsolete or non-pertinent. In any case, the skeptic is not impressed about what Jesus may or may not have thought of the OT when he or she is still questioning the basic truths of whether or not Jesus even existed historically.
A We cannot allow for the Theory of Accommodation. (The theory states that Jesus "dumbed" down his ministry in order to appeal to the time and place of first century Palestine, and was therefore not applying his words to a later time, such as the present.) The theory is impossible because it destroys the entire thrust of the Bible which asserts that all events and miracles recorded did indeed occur historically. If these Gospel accounts have no factual basis, then any objective meaning to the biblical comparisons is gone and the door to agnosticism and atheism swings wide open. Moreover, if we allow for some of the historical statements to be an accommodation, why not allow some of the ethical statements to be merely an accommodation to a primitive Jewish belief? It is easy to see how one could be led to agnosticism by following this theory to its logical end, for eventually one would be hard-pressed to come up with some standard to determine what is the real belief of Jesus and what is only an accommodation to the people of His day. We could never be sure exactly what Jesus believed. Furthermore, this idea contradicts everything we know about Jesus, who, when confronted with error, quickly refuted it. (Matthew 15 ; Mark 7 ) Finally the theory of accommodation gives a very low view of Christ who said that "I am the truth." (John 14:6 )
Critique While one can empathize with McDowell's position, just because he "cannot allow" the theory of accommodation, does not make it go away or any less true. His argument regarding the damage to the "thrust" of the Bible if Jesus was accommodating is also highly questionable since the concept of Jesus as the Messiah does not play an all-encompassing part of the 66 books of the Bible. The biggest fallacy that McDowell makes is assuming that by accepting accommodation, agnosticism or atheism is the slippery-slope result. One can be an atheist and believe that Jesus existed as a historical figure, just as one can believe in God, but not the divinity of Jesus. Atheism is not the logical result of discounting the divinity of Jesus as millions of Jews, Muslims, and Hindu can attest to. The coup de grace of McDowell's argument is a circular reference to Mark and Matthew as proof of the decisiveness of Jesus when confronted with error. Aside from the circular reference to Jesus in the gospels, the notion That Jesus has a low tolerance for error has little to do with accommodation. A Messiah to the Jews (of which there were many in Jesus' time) can be a perfectionist and still be bound to the ideas and philosophies of his era. McDowell's flaw is assuming beforehand that Jesus is divine and then working back from there reasoning why Jesus couldn't possibly be bound to ideological and philosophical context of his time period. If we agree that, as depicted in the Gospel accounts, Jesus behaved within the context of Palestinian Judaism, then there is no need to apply a "superman" label and assume that Jesus was omniscient unless we have already decided that he is divine beforehand. This is clearly what McDowell has done, but he has failed to show reasonable evidence to the skeptic for why anyone should take the propagandist's viewpoint (Paul or the Gospels) when so many other claims of divinity for other Man/Gods exist as well.
A When God spoke in the Bible it was in real-life situations, not fantasy. The Bible views itself as non-fiction; the scriptures interpret Scripture literally. God wants to communicate with His created, so would do so plainly and not through "strange" or "hidden" allegory. It is just not true that the Bible can be understood in many different ways and that everyone has their own interpretation. The Bible must betaken literally.
Critique Wishing something to be so does not necessarily make it so. There is absolutely no reason given for the motives or decisions of God to "want to communicate with His created" and it leads the skeptic to wonder how McDowell has arrived as such a unique understanding without any evidence. It is only McDowell's opinion that God wants to communicate with humans at all, many cultures consider God to be inherently unknowable and noncommunicative. This position is also the single most damaging piece of doctrine that McDowell can advance if he wants to destroy his argument with a skeptic. It would be impossible to take the Bible literally and have it still make sense or be infallible. Contradictions such as those mentioned in various other places here and historical mistakes mark the Bible as fallible. A wonderful, delightful piece of literary achievement but human-created and fallible nonetheless. McDowell's wishing otherwise doesn't change the facts.
A Not necessarily. A good rule for interpretation is that if the literal sense makes good sense, then don't try to change the meaning. One should always seek to interpret literally unless the text is clearly figurative, poetic, metaphorical, or hyperbolic. Figurative language does have a place in the scriptures but only when the passage is obviously not meant to be taken literally.
Critique This is another example of how McDowell's book was written for the believer and not to convince the skeptic to convert. The skeptic wants to critically examine the Bible and discover if what it promulgates regarding Jesus and Christianity is the truth, not whether or not passages should be taken literally or symbolically. Nevertheless, it gives us a hint as to how McDowell wants us to read the Bible, a technique that will come back to haunt him in such passages as Isaiah's "four corners" and Joshua's "sun that stood still." These passages, read in context and following McDowell's rules for literal reading, damn the supernaturalism of the Bible. Some apologists have attempted a very embarrassing argument which goes something like, "If the passage is historically and scientifically accurate, then it is to be read literally, but if the passage is obviously wrong, then the passage is to be taken allegorically. "This "catch-all" non-argument is rigged. It allows the literalist to pick and choose which passages are symbolic or literal depending upon twentieth-century knowledge. The catch-all has also shown unabashed hypocrisy over the years as literalists shift and change their position regarding the Bible as knowledge has advanced which necessitates this "waffling." A literal interpretation is also a dangerous game, because on dozens of occasions over the past 400 years, contemporary discoveries or scientific advances have contradicted orthodoxy and literal interpretations of the Bible. Whether or not the literalist wants to admit it, their position has moved more perhaps than the allegorist as, over the centuries, so-called "literal truths "turn out to be little more than ever-changing dogmatic disagreements, scientific impossibilities corrected, and ideological shifts in aesthetics. Hence, the literalist's understanding of a passage is not so much "what," but "which" of the several throughout time you choose to believe at any given time since a literalist has no choice but to understand a passage within the limitations of his own time and place. Ironically then, Allegorists are Literalists who are tired of playing this game and desire more stability in their understanding of the scriptures.
A McDowell's answer not summarized.
Critique Thirty-four pages of Reasons are devoted to this topic. What is the justification for allowing so much valuable real estate to be given to this question when there are skeptics who need reasons to consider Christianity? McDowell writes, ". . . we are constantly being asked about the virtues and limitations of different Bible translations." This question is a red herring because Reasons is supposed to be a book on apologetics. The entire section that covers biblical questions is only 98 pages, and yet of those almost half are wasted on advising believers as to the pros and cons of English translations of the Bible! This can be taken several ways but two that quickly come to mind are first, that McDowell has run out of useful reasons for why the skeptic should consider Christianity, or perhaps that the book was never intended to be read by skeptics, and is instead aimed at fellow Christians who want to be comforted that their own faith is valid. This latter explanation is the more likely when you consider that the book is directed at the "average person"(from the Introduction) and not the skeptic who is usually more educated. Also, McDowell conspicuously leaves out in-depth explanations in places that would be taken for granted by the believer, but perhaps raise important questions in the skeptic, e.g., using the Gospel of Matthew to validate something written in the Gospel of John, even though the former was written much earlier than John.
A The Bible is more than an ordinary book. It reveals itself to be the supernatural Word of God. We are driven to this conclusion, not because of circular reasoning, but because of the evidence which is: it must fit the criteria of being transmitted to us from God accurately from the time it was originally written; it must be correct when it deals with historical personages and events (it cannot confuse names, dates, and events); and any revelations within the Bible should be without any scientific absurdities which would betray human authorship. The Bible meets these three criteria because it is a very accurate transmission of the original text judging by the same standards as used for classical pieces of literature. It meets the second criterion because the history recorded in the Scriptures proves to be accurate(as far as we have been able to check them out) and the names, dates, and events are all recorded accurately. Anyone who says that the Bible is unreliable historically is not a professional historian. And where the Bible speaks on matters of science, it does so with simple, yet correct terms devoid of absurdities. It is not a book expected from pre-scientific times. Unlike the crude Babylonian account of creation (the earth was made from a dismembered part of a god) Genesis is written with restraint and is accurate and concise. The flood of Noah's day is given in sensible terms too, and is accurate scientifically. The Bible is of divine origin because of the magnificent unity of the Scriptures, which tell one story from beginning (Genesis) to end (Revelation), something that no group of people could accomplish without divine help. Therefore this supernatural character to the Bible is one reason why we believe Christianity to be true.
Critique This is an ad hoc argument in its entirety. The skeptic is not interested in McDowell's opinion of his three criteria or informal assertions, facts must be stated to convince a nonbeliever. But even with the ad hoc premises presented there are flaws that instantly damage the entire argument. McDowell insists that the bible is scientifically and historically infallible.
Although too numerous to mention, a few inaccuracies such as Isaiah 11:12 (700 BCE) which mentions that the earth has "four corners." It is well known that the ancient Hebrews believed the world to be flat and held up by four "pillars" at its corners and Isaiah meant for this passage to be literally true. Attempts are made to turn this, and other similar passages, into something symbolic, rather than literal, but if we take McDowell's own arguments we are supposed to take everything in the Bible literally unless it is an obvious metaphor or hyperbole (see p.37). This passage in Isaiah is definitely not an obvious metaphor or poetic play on words, and was widely believed as the truth by many people in the ancient world. Just because this myth is now known to be wrong, doesn't mean we can retroactively apply symbolism to the original author's intention.
Another notable passage is where the writer of Joshua is (understandably) unaware of the heliocentric nature of the sun and earth. He writes:
During the centuries preceding, and even into the Common Era after Joshua, it was common knowledge that the earth was immovable and that the sun and moon rose and set over the earth.(The geocentric cosmology survived until Copernicus in the sixteenth century.) When the author of Joshua wrote this passage he meant for it to be taken quite literally. There is no reason not to take it that way in fact, and it would have seemed ridiculous to an ancient Hebrew to have Joshua 10:13 taken in any other way in the same sense that we would hesitate if someone were to ask us today if we really thought that the earth revolved around the sun. This passage has been swept aside by apologists as a mere metaphor, but the skeptic knows the context, history, and scant astronomical knowledge of the ancient Semitic peoples and realizes that this passage was meant to be taken quite literally. All literature and philosophy of the ancient world took it for granted that the earth was motionless and that the sun revolved around the earth. Again, to explain it as symbolic is to retroactively apply modern cosmological knowledge to an ancient peoples understanding of their universe - a hasty excuse that just doesn't fit common sense or the facts.
See the critique for "What does it mean, The Bible is inspired?" above, for historical facts that contradict the biblical account. Briefly some other problems are: Matthew's genealogy conflicts with Luke's, Matthew 2:23 says that the prophets referred to a "Nazarene" but no such reference was ever made or is found in the OT, and Matthew tells the story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents even though no such event occurred historically as chronicled exhaustively by Joseph's in Book 18 of Antiquities of the Jews. A few more worth mentioning, even if only in passing, are: Matthew claims that Jesus was born in the reign of Herod(who died in 4 BCE) and Luke says that Jesus was born during the Syrian governorship of Quirinius (who was not governor until 6 CE); Matthew says that Jesus healed two blind men as he was leaving Jericho (20:29 ) but Mark and Luke mention one blind man and Luke says that Jesus was approaching Jericho. (18:35 ); The Centurion of Capernaum goes out to speak to Jesus in person in Matthew (8:5-13) but in Luke the centurion stays at home and sends out elders to speak to Jesus (7:1-10).
Many attempts have been made to reconcile the gospels with each other, and to apologize for the lack of basic scientific knowledge in the Bible. But these attempts are usually "what if's" and "could have been's" and are obvious stretches of the imagination the typical nonbeliever who understands the motives of the apologist. For McDowell to make the sweeping claim that "the history recorded in the Scriptures proves to be accurate "indicates that he assumes his reader too lazy to verify this claim or too trusting to disagree with it. The escape hatch that McDowell did put in his answer ("[the Scriptures are accurate] as far as we have been able to check them out") shows further that he knows of these discrepancies and has chosen not to address these problems or share them with his skeptical audience, perhaps in the vain hope that no one will bring them up. Alternatively, it may indicate that McDowell never intended Reasons to be read by skeptics at all and was instead engaging in good old-fashioned "preaching to the choir." As noted before, this is the most probable reason why McDowell plays "fast and loose" with his arguments and denotes so little space to questions and answers that would address the concerns of a real skeptic. The believer does not concern himself with extraneous details such as the supernaturalism or infallibility of the Bible; it is a given that the Bible is all of these things and more. Reasons is a work designed to strengthen the faith of the believer by presenting arguments in a pseudo-scholarly fashion that have the appearance of irrefutability.
A McDowell's answer not summarized.
Critique Non sequitur and red herring fallacy. Third-party speculation on pseudo-scientific theories of the Bigfoot or UFO variety, while entertaining, do not speak to the tenets of Christianity or whether or not Christianity is true. Suspending credibility for a moment and assuming that an ark were on Mount Ararat, it would only show that Yahweh, the Hebrew god of the OT, may indeed exist and caused a great flood at some point in time. The Christian faith has nothing to do with Hebrew mythological accounts, even if those mythologies had some basis in fact. This section is a prelude of the next section of Reasons where McDowell digresses into a Creationist critique of the Theory of Evolution. Just as the ark has no bearing on Christianity, the refutation of evolution has nothing to do with Christianity either. Evolution, as a theory concerning the origins of life on earth, was hypothesized given the data obtained via the scientific method. The theory should be subject to scrutiny and constant reevaluation, but a critique of certain ideas concerning evolution is not the same as advancing reasons why a skeptic should consider Christianity. Most Christians have no conflict between the theory of evolution and their faith, so McDowell's assertion is not typical of Christianity. A thorough refutation of the evolution section of Reasons is beyond the scope of this deconstruction, but the section suffers from major flaws. It does not advance a single reason why Creationism should be accepted as a valid scientific theory, rather seeks to bring down a "competitor" by picking at nits, or misrepresenting the competitor (evolution) through context-dropping and fallacy. Even if we were to become completely and totally convinced of McDowell's nit-picking and throw out the entire evolutionary theory, it does not address the truths of Christianity. Once again, we must conclude that the section (which comprises over half of the book) is meant as a strengthening of the Christian adherent's faith, and not as a serious argument for why the skeptic should consider Christianity. If evolution were not true and the universe were created, the only question to ask would be which god (of the hundreds worshipped) created it. We would not be asking whether or not Jesus was a divine Messiah of Yahweh who died for the world's redemption.
Reasons is not really a book on apologetics. It is a book for the believer who wishes to know that, although they themselves never "looked in up" someone of the faith has and all of the tenets of Christianity fit into the cosmology of science, and the historicity of the world. The book is a useful simulacrum for the Christian who needs to fill the gap created by the skeptic who asks embarrassing or offensive questions about the very foundations of the faith. Whether or not McDowell intended for it to be taken that way, in most skeptic/believer conversations and debates, Reasons is a baseball that is thrown by the believer to the skeptic both to buy time and in the hope that, although the believer knows very little about the issues involved, the skeptic will be sufficiently placated enough to drop the issue or to even accept the validity of McDowell's arguments prima facie. The hope is that by the time the skeptic gets around the obtaining the fringe book from a local Christian bookstore and digesting it's arguments, the issue at hand will have been forgotten. (C.S. Lewis is often used as a deus ex machina in exactly the same way.)
Some Christians even go as far as to assert that even suggesting the names of McDowell or Lewis in casual conversation is enough to prove the tenets of Christianity, even though they themselves have never investigated the books that they are recommending. This becomes painfully obvious when the skeptic takes up an issue concerning something that was addressed by McDowell in one of his books and argues against it only to then be told to "read McDowell for the answer to what you just said."
Hopefully this (admittedly far from exhaustive) deconstruction will have touched on the major themes addressed in McDowell's Reasons. Most of these fallacies have been well-known by skeptics for a long time and are obvious to the reader with common sense after a casual glance through Reasons, but it is sometimes helpful to formalize such a deconstruction for the sake of clarity and reference. Hopefully it will also be instructive for the many Christian name-droppers who feel that the mere mention of Reasons is sufficient proof for the truths of Christianity.
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