In Acts 17, the Greek philosophers told Paul he had some “strange ideas” about God because he talked about Jesus and the Resurrection. Paul responded by giving them this classic speech in which he quoted their poets and writers and while making a general case for the God’s existence before arriving at the conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, God.
Last week we took a similar approach by asking how we can be effective ambassadors for Christ as we give reasons for the existence of God. This week we will be looking more closely at issues involving truth - specifically, what do we do when we engage with someone who is agnostic; that is, skeptical that truth can be known. John records the following conversation when Jesus was taken to Pilate for trial:
“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. (John 18:37-38)
This was not an unusual response from a man who was probably greatly influenced by the skeptical philosophers around him. One famous saying at the time (from Pliny) was, “The only certain thing is that nothing is certain.”
We as Christians will eventually make the claim that not only can we know Christ in the sense that we can experience him; we can know Him in the sense that we can gain some sort of objective knowledge about him. In a world full of voices that increasingly sound like Pilate and Pliny, how can we navigate in a conversation with an agnostic from Point A (Skepticism or Agnosticism) to Point B (Truth) and eventually Point C (Truth about Christ)?
First, if someone makes a clear statement about their disbelief in their ability to know things, clarify the case being made. Nicely ask him or her to support that claim – and nicely ask some tough questions. Can the agnostic back up the claim that nothing can be backed up, or give reasons to believe that there are no reasons to believe? If nothing else, it presents an intellectual dilemma.
Second, it’s important to understand the Christian claim about truth. Christians are not saying that everything can be known absolutely. Very few things can, actually. We are making a more modest claim: Truth can be sufficiently known. Even though we can acquire and seek for knowledge only in part, it’s sufficient for us to move forward (make a decision and act).
This should not come as a surprise. After all, we constantly make choices in response to the knowledge we have: we cross the street, choose a spouse, ride in an airplane, or eat sushi based on incomplete but sufficient information. Granted, these are ordinary, empirical examples, but why assume that suddenly questions involving God must be put into a different category entirely? Some religions give no weight to empirical truth, but Christianity does. It practically begs you to study recorded, empirical events in the history of the world.
Third, knowledge has a particular definition: “justified, true belief.”
- Justified – We have good reasons to trust that some things are true – our mind and senses are working normally, etc. We say, “Hey, look at this!” or “Did you hear that?” all the time.
- True – What we believe corresponds with reality. We say, “Traverse City was packed during the Cherry Festival,” and it turns out it was.
- Belief – We have firmly held convictions because we are justified in our statements about what is true.
This definition of knowledge may seem a little pointy-headed at first, but it's actually very similar to what Luke wrote at the beginning of his gospel:
“I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)
Paul says that even though “we know in part,” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12), we can still “go forward in the light of such truth as we have already learned” (Philippians 3:16). The Christian claim, then, is not that God can be perfectly known. The claim is that God can be sufficiently known, and we are justified in make a decision about the truthfulness of God's existence.
"To say that we cannot know anything about God is to say something about God; it is to say that if there is a God, he is unknowable. But in that case, he is not entirely unknowable, for the agnostic certainly thinks that we can know one thing about him: That nothing else can be known about him. In the end, agnosticism is an illogical position to hold to." – J. Budziszewski
True for You, but not for Me, Paul Copan
Love Your God With All Your Mind, JP Moreland
A Refutation of Moral Relativism, Peter Kreeft
Chapters 1-4, That’s Just Your Interpretation, Paul Copan
Chapter 1 & 2, Is God Just a Human Invention, Sean McDowell
Chapter 11 & 17, Think Christianly, Jonathan Morrow
Seven Things You Can’t Do as a Moral Relativist, Salvo Magazine, Greg Koukl
Myths About the Search for Knowledge, J. Budziszewski
A Critique of Agnosticism, William Lane Craig
Absolute Truth, Frank Turek
Dealing with Doubts, Mike Licona, Bobby Conway
Cultural Relativism and the Emasculation of Truth (4 parts), Ravi Zacharias