Part 5 of Dr. Bahnsen’s video lecture series (“Defending the Faith”) is called “Problems For Unbelieving Worldviews.” In this final lecture Dr. Bahnsen performs an exegesis of Paul’s defense of the Christian faith in Athens as recorded in the book of Acts, Chapter 17, verses 16 thru 34. He then describes four major, specific problems that unbelieving worldviews cannot explain or make sense of.
PAUL REASONING WITH UNBELIEVERS IN ATHENS
Dr. Bahnsen begins with an in-depth exegesis of Paul’s dealings with the unbelievers in Athens. An “exegesis” is a critical interpretation and explanation of verses or whole books of Scripture. He demonstrates how Paul uses the presuppositional apologetic method that you have been learning about from these lectures.
As Paul’s adventure begins in Acts 17:16, he was wondering around Athens waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him when “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” As a result of this provocation that welled up within him, “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.”
Paul declared his worldview to those there, then engaged in a reasoned, philosophical defense of the faith. As we have seen in Part 4, the Bible tells us that this means to not get sucked in by the myth of neutrality, but rather to exert the truth of the Gospel and then force the unbeliever to provide a coherent explanation for their worldview. Use their own presuppositions against them and reduce their position to absurdity “lest he be wise in his own conceit.” (Proverbs 26:5)
Who was there to reason with him? The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Or, as we learned in Part 2, those who held to worldviews of materialism and dualism, respectively. We know he openly spoke of the Gospel because of the way in which he was mocked. He was called a “babbler,” which in the Greek is actually a term for a gutter sparrow that picks seeds out of the public latrine.
In their vain confusion, they thought he was preaching about multiple gods: one named Jesus, the other named Resurrection. It was illegal to preach about foreign gods in Athens, so the Athenians took Paul to the Areopagus, the high court of the Roman city-state of Athens, to preach his theology and defend his case.
Many people were there to listen to any new idea, just for the thrill of it. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21)
Paul came across altars dedicated to a variety of gods, but he spoke specifically about the one that was labeled “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” As Scripture tells us in Romans 1, God has made known to everyone His existence. The ones who do not repent, accept Christ, and bow their hearts, minds, and knees to the Lord of Glory engage in self-deception and suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
It’s ironic, therefore, that of all the altars and idols the Athenians had set up to numerous false gods, they openly declare that, of the one true God, they know nothing. Paul addressed them about this:
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:23-25)
After having declared his Christian worldview to them, he then used the writings of the Athenian poets as evidence against them, showing that it betrays their knowledge of God lest they be wise in their own conceit:
as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (Acts 17:28-29)
He pointed out to them the internal inconsistency within their worldview. He noted that even their own poets know that we are God’s offspring. But if we examine ourselves, we are not made of things like gold, silver, stone, or other imaginative images. If that’s the case, then why should God, our father, be any different? Why would we think he is made up of such things? They could not live consistently within their own worldview.
Some who listened were converted to Christ. Some asked to hear more. And despite Paul’s warning that “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed,” others simply mocked.
PROBLEM OF MORAL ABSOLUTES
Dr. Bahnsen then moves into a discussion of four main problems that unbelieving worldviews have difficulties overcoming and explaining.
The first is the Problem of Moral Absolutes. As Christians, we know that the source of morality is God’s holy, righteous character:
Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest. (Revelation 15:4)
O LORD God of Israel, thou art righteous: for we remain yet escaped, as it is this day: behold, we are before thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before thee because of this. (Ezra 9:25)
Jesus bears witness to God’s good and perfect character:
And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. (Mark 10:18)
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Furthermore, God’s law possesses all of these same qualities (Romans 7:12, Romans 2:26, 1 Timothy 1:8, James 1:25). They possess these qualities because He authored them, and they are in accordance with His character. By following them, we progressively sanctify ourselves by the power of the Holy Spirit to walk as Christ did.
Though the law itself is written into the hearts and minds of God’s covenanted people (Hebrews 8:10, 10:16), the work of the law is written on everyone’s hearts:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15)
Just as a stopped clock can be correct even twice a day, even pagans can sometimes stumble onto what’s good and bad without kneeling to Christ. Unbelievers will commonly appeal to “good” being defined as that which evokes approval or that which achieves certain ends.
If it’s a case of the first, they have to decide whether it’s social or personal (individual) approval. If social, we have no basis for expressing outrage at such horrendous acts as the holocaust — since the society agreed that launching a campaign of genocide against the Jews is what they wanted to do, then that’s how the society defined “good,” and we just have to respect that. If individual, then “good” is just a subjective, emotional expression that varies from person to person, so there’s no objective moral standard to compare these emotional expressions to — they are rendered relative and meaningless.
In the case of the latter, the fallacy lies in the case of the “certain ends.” If “good” means pursuing a specific ends, how do you determine if the “ends” are “good”? By what measure do you compare that to without simply assuming that the ends are good? The unbeliever will know what “good” is because their conscience will sometimes “accuse them.” The work of the law is written on their hearts. But they cannot appeal to God’s holy and righteous character to justify their intuition. If recognition comes by way of intuition, then, then there’s no use arguing or justifying the position because there are no ways to resolve differences of opinion, and there’s no way to determine whether the person’s intuition about good is, itself, good. You’d have to intuit that your intuition about your intuition’s intuition about your intuition is good; you find yourself in a regressive loop that has no ultimate authority other than itself.
THE UNIFORMITY OF NATURE
Consider the following Scripture:
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)
All of science is based upon the idea that we can perform repeatable experiments and rely on those results being the same today, tomorrow, and years from now. We do not question that the law of gravity, for example, which has operated for as long as we have historical records, will be different tomorrow when we wake up. We take it for granted. As Christians, this makes sense to us because this is God’s covenant agreement with us: a predictable universe in which we can learn and grow so as to progressively carry out our task of dominion (Genesis 1:28).
If nature were non-uniform, then performing an action in a certain area at a certain point in the universe at a certain time of day would produce different results than if performed at a different point in the universe at a different time of day.
Unbelievers will often rely upon the exertion that, since we’ve measured the past, we have a probability of correctly predicting the future. Bertrand Russell, a devout atheist philosopher, described this problem of using induction to predict the future:
Thus all knowledge which, on a basis of experience tells us something about what is not experienced, is based upon a belief which experience can neither confirm nor confute, yet which, at least in its more concrete applications, appears to be as firmly rooted in us as many of the facts of experience. The existence and justification of such beliefs — for the inductive principle, as we shall see, is not the only example — raises some of the most difficult and most debated problems of philosophy. [Emphasis added]
(To read Russell’s eloquent refutation of induction and the ultimate futility of it all, click here to read.)
The point is that there is no scientific foundation for the principles of uniformity that science rests upon. This leads to endless, impossible questions. How do we know assuredly that the universe is in fact uniform? Has man tested every infinite fact there is so that we can know its quality and nature and speak with confidence without assuming the unknown? How do we know our experience, which we rely upon, is accurate and is in conformity with reality? How do we know that we not butterflies dreaming that we are men?
Man cannot obtain exhaustive information about every detail and fact in the universe. So without doing so, as Dr. Gentry writes, we must “assume or presuppose uniformity and then think and act on this very basic assumption. Consequently the principle of uniformity is not a scientific law but an act of faith which undergirds scientific law.”
This is a commitment religious to the core. Push this point and the unbeliever’s worldview collapses.
THE PROBLEM OF UNIVERSALS
Think for a moment about universal, abstract concepts that we rely on every day, such as the laws of logic. The laws of logic are unchanging. By applying them we can predict reality (such as by using complex mathematical equations in engineering problems to design buildings, bridges, and power plants).
But the laws of logic are not material things. They cannot be measured. They don’t grow on trees. But we can still use them. As Paul wrote, “God is not the author of confusion.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)
The 3 basic laws of logic have their foundation in our God:
1) Law of Identity – states that “A is A.” Something cannot be both true and not true at the same time. God affirms this law when he tells Moses “I Am Who I Am.” (Exodus 3:14)
2) Law of Contradiction – states that “A is not not-A.” Something cannot be both true and false in the same sense at the same time. James tells us to “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (James 5:12)
3) Law of Excluded Middle – states that “A is either A or not-A.” Every statement must be either true or false exclusively (no middle ground). Jesus affirms this by describing the antithesis: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30)
As Christians, we see the laws of logic as expressions of God’s thinking. As Paul wrote, he is not the author of confusion; he thinks logically. He didn’t create the laws of logic; they reflect his character. They cannot change because he does not change: “For I am the LORD, I change not.” (Malachi 3:6)
If the laws of logic are mere conventions agreed to by men, then they are not universal and are subject to change. If an unbeliever appeals to empirical science as his method of determining facts, then he is relying upon the laws of logic to make a prediction which follows logically from his hypothesis. However, he cannot use the scientific method to “prove” the laws of logic. He rests upon a principle that he cannot prove using the method he uses to determine facts.
It gets even worse if you talk about things as simple as “ideas” and “concepts.” Dr. Bahnsen illustrates this by the example of writing someone’s name on the board. He asks the person if that is the person’s name, to which they agree. Then he erases their name and says to them “So now you don’t have a name anymore.” Of course that’s not the case; the person still has that name whether it’s written down or not. But the name is a concept. A concept is not a material thing that can be seen or observed, no more than the laws of logic are.
PERSONAL FREEDOM, AND DIGNITY
Freedom and human dignity. These are concepts that God affirms and reveals to us. Scripture affirms the importance of our name and reputation: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” (Proverbs 22:1) God made man “a little lower than God.” (Psalm 8:5) Man was made in God’s own image (Genesis 1:26). And of course, God took on the form of man in the human form of Jesus Christ to suffer all of the afflictions common to man and more by dying for our sins though he, himself, was sinless.
God’s law affirms man’s dignity: “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13)
Dr. Bahnsen illustrates the fact that only humans have a sense of dignity because, unlike animals, we hold funerals for the dead. Lions, on the other hand, sometimes eat their dead. If men are no more than advanced animals, why should we have this sense of dignity that our other animal brethren do not have?
Is human dignity a mere convention? If so, then it can change as society changes.
In the extreme, we affirm the dignity of all things equally since we cannot rationally account for human dignity. This tends to be the case with environmentalists, for example. They may exert that we should preserve all life. This poses a problem for the millions of micro-organisms we kill by simply breathing. Perhaps, therefore, we should save those lives by stopping our breathing and dying.
Some would certainly prefer to reduce the quality of human life in order to preserve plant and animal life. The question becomes: how far do we go? Also, legal rights: do we prosecute animals that kill other animals? Do they qualify for parole?
The materialistic world has problems, too. Professor of Biology, William Provine, at Cornell, said “No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.”
The idea of a universe built upon random chance destroys human dignity as well. If by chance we randomly evolved to be where we are today, then it’s meaningless to assert a concept like dignity. If we’re driven by the survival of the fittest, then to be preserving life unnecessarily (like the poor or the old) goes against the nature by which we were created. The idea of dignity becomes a contradiction in such a worldview.
These four ideas, taken together, reduce the unbelieving worldview to an absurdity and confirm the Christian worldview by asserting the impossibility of the contrary — not merely the superiority of the Christian worldview to others.
Lessons 9, 10, 11, and 12 of the accompanying series study guide that goes along with this lecture can be found by clicking here. It is in PDF format for easy reading.