Justifying Christian Belief: The Discussion Before The Discussion

Derek Ouellette —  May 31, 2011

I enjoyed reading a recent book review in Christianity Today (starting on p.69) of Existential Reasons For Belief In God by Michael McGowan (Michael is the author of the review, not the book which is authored by Clifford Williams).

Michael said something in his review which caught my attention. People are seldom won over to the Christian faith through argument. Most of the time they are won over because something about the Christian story resonates deep within them and connects their most basic emotional (i.e. “existential”) needs. Then he adds:

“The key difference is that reason-based arguments attempt to prove that Christianity is true, while existential arguments justify Christian belief on the basis of the satisfaction of needs.”

Now this is an interesting observation in light of the recent discussions on hell that has been airing around in books and on blogs as of late. Christianity has always (generally) accepted hell as something of an eternal nature. They read the scriptures and see that almost everywhere it is discussed it is depicted in terms of unending, either explicitly or implicitly. This seems to be the bare bones of the evidence.

But what has caused people to question this seemingly obvious depiction of hell (however the details are conceptualized) is that it lacks existential evidence. That is, those who defend the traditional view are having a difficult time justifying it on the grounds of humanities basic emotional needs.

This is why those who commonly reject hell as a place of eternal punishment often ascribe a callous heart to those who accept it. Yet not everyone feels emotions to the same extent as everyone else. For these people emotions play little or no part in accepting arguments when the straightforward evidence seems so clear. But for others, that evidence needs to be “justified” on an existential level, and if the arguments put forth cannot do that the evidence must be skewed in some way and requires re-evaluation.

The flip side of that coin however is that reasoning that seeks to primarily satisfy the emotional needs of humans does not guarantee truth.

But then if we flip that coin over again we may be reminded that in the Christian faith “believing” is not about accepting and defending facts, but about “believing” on a deeper, more emotional level that works itself out in actions.

But where does that leave us in terms of truth? Can we not get all hyped up and emotional over nonsense? “Nonsense” being “no sense” as in lacking sufficient intellectual evidence. Satisfying the emotional needs of the person but not standing up to the available evidence?

I think this discussion has a big role to play in the other discussion on the nature of hell. It is my hope that this discussion would continue and that somehow it would make the other discussion less hostile.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James

    I certainly agree that hostilities in this discussion need to end. Those attacking Bell’s book almost invariably bring up that Bell calls the traditional view of Hell and those that believe it “toxic” and “misguided.” While overall, Bell speaks in a loving tone, I cannot fault those who find that kind of language to be a turn-off to what he says.

    I have definitely seen this in what a lot of universalists say – there is a certain arrogance in their viewpoints. (I can also say that I’ve seen the same on the other side too, but most people are seeing that anyway.)

    To me, this is why I found Gregory McDonald’s, “The Evangelical Universalist” to be such a treasure. He is both honest and humble. He even states that because of church tradition, the traditional view *should* be our default view, and it should require a great deal of evidence, thought, and prayer, more than his book alone contains, to push someone to a different stance. I wish all who argue their side would show as much charity and humility as he does.

    On the existential justification issue – some fascinating thoughts indeed! I know C.S. Lewis used this to argue for the afterlife – we hunger because there is food and we need to eat it, and thus we yearn for life after death because that urge is there to be satisfied. (At least that is how I remember his argument going.) It is interesting to relate to Hell though… I’m not sure where my “gut feeling” is on the matter… it feels pretty confused at the moment actually, haha!

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Williams uses Lewis’ analogy as well:

      We are justified in consuming food not to prove rationally that food exists, but to satisfy our natural hunger.

  • Josh

    I wrote this awhile ago when reflecting on the existential reality of our “beliefs”, our “worldview” (our view of the world).

    Our world is not a war of ideas;
    It is a war of passions.
    Our conflicts are not chiefly of reason,
    But of strategically placed belief.

    Whether debate amongst an atheist and a theist, or differing doctrinal views (e.g. Calvinism and Arminianism), there is alot that is emotionally and psychologically at stake for anyone defending a position.

    That is why (even though I believe strongly in apologetics – or explaining the faith, the worldview), I agree 100% with this:
    “People are seldom won over to the Christian faith through argument. Most of the time they are won over because something about the Christian story resonates deep within them and connects their most basic emotional (i.e. “existential”) needs.”

    We will not win people through argument (rather than explanation), but through love and embodying the kind of community Christ has called us to be. Love is the greatest vehicle, relationship the greatest catalyst to sharing the truth of Christ we are experiencing through the Spirit in the life of God!

    • Josh

      Argumentation (rather than explanation) too often causes people to be defensive of their worldview and way of life rather than open to a new worldview, a new way of life. It’s important to remember as Paul said it in Romans: “it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance”. And John wrote in 1 John: “not that we first loved him but that He first loved us…” (and we should do the same towards others).