Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig is a collection of essays “dedicated to addressing challenges from the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity concerning belief in God, the historical Jesus, and Christianity’s doctrinal coherence.”(1) Like the book Passionate Conviction this publication is the fruit of the annual conferences of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. The book has eighteen chapters, each substantial in content, which makes the book broad in scope and anything but shallow. The purpose of this review will be limited to simply providing a general overview of the contents.
Chapter one: “Dawkins’s Delusion” by William Lane Craig is a critique of Dawkins’s central argument in The God Delusion. Craig’s chapter gets right to the point and shows the argument logically invalid. However, Craig goes on to critique the overall substance of Dawkins’s “who designed the designer?” and shows that “in order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t have an explanation of the explanation.”(2)
Chapter two: “At Home in the Multiverse” by James Daniel Sinclair looks at the issues in current cosmology regarding the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. Sinclair differentiates between the strong and weak anthropic principle and shows some of the problems with positing “many worlds” to explain the fine-tuning: “The Many Worlds advocate is engaged in a problem called the Gambler’s Fallacy.”(3) Sinclair explains that if we have prior knowledge of many worlds, then this fallacy is not taking place. But, “if I am simply inventing Many Worlds, then I am engaged in the fallacy.”(4) Sinclair then addresses six problems facing the multiverse hypothesis.
Chapter three: “Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason” by Victor Reppert attacks the positive philosophy of many of the New Atheist – that of metaphysical naturalism. Reppert presents an argument that confronts the naturalistic account: “The contention of the argument from reason is that if the world were truly what naturalism says it is, there would be matter, but there would be no scientists to discover the properties of matter.”(5) He differentiates between two world view types: mentalistic and nonmentalistic. The former says that mental states are basic causes and the latter says that no mental states are basic causes. Reppert explains that the marks of the mental include purpose, aboutness, normativity, and subjectivity,(6) and he argues that all of these things “are not supposed to be brought in to the physical descriptions of things, at least at the most basic level of analysis.”(7)
Chapter four: “Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain?” By Michael J. Murray addresses the issue of how belief formation seems to be hardwired into the human system: “We now have conclusive evidence that human minds come into the world with all sorts of ‘software’ both preinstalled and booted up.”(8) In other words, we have hardwired dispositions for morality and religion. Murray asks the question, “Is religion an artifact of the brain?” Some people say that because the brain normally forms beliefs in God, then it means that religion or morality is simply a trick that our minds play on us. Murray identifies this as is the well-known genetic fallacy. He then contends that these sorts of criticisms do not provide a problem for religious belief, as they don’t show religion false, nor belief in God unwarranted. The only way that these arguments could be problematic is if they somehow showed that “human minds would exist and believe in God, even if there were no God.”(9) Murray concludes that, at bottom, all that the research has shown is that belief in God or gods arises naturally – something completely consistent with John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis.
Chapter five: “The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism” by Mark D. Linville criticizes the Darwinistic account of morality, arguing that, “on its own standard interpretation, [the Darwinistic account] does not explain morality but, rather, explains it away. We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts but how we could have come to believe, perhaps erroneously, that there are.”(10) Linville shines light on Darwin’s shortcomings in dealing with morality: “What Darwin never asks, and thus never answers, is why a man ought, in fact, to obey the one rather than the other.”(11) The author’s view: “Given the background belief of naturalism, there appears to be no plausible Darwinian reason for thinking that the fitness-producing predispositions that set the parameters for moral reflection have anything whatsoever to do with the truth of the resulting moral beliefs.”(12) In other words, if morality is only a bi-product of a Darwinian benefit for survival, then there is no reason to believe that it is objectively true.
Chapter six: “Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence” by Gregory E. Ganssle is a look at what the author believes is actually the strongest of Dawkins’s arguments against God, namely, “A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without.”(13) After a little bit of analysis, Ganssle points out that the argument does not aim to prove that God does not exist. It is an evidential argument – one of probability. Ganssle reminds the reader that “in investigating the case for some philosophical claim such as the existence of God, we take all of the evidential arguments together and try to determine in which direction the total case points.”(14) The author then shows four things that seem to all point better towards theism than towards atheism: “(1) the universe is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation; (2) it is a world with consciousness; (3) it is a world with significant free agency; and (4) it is a world with objective moral obligations”(15) Ganssle concludes that, in sum, Dawkins’s best argument turns out to be not well-supported.
Chapter seven begins Part two, The Jesus of History, with Robert H. Stein’s essay: “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity.” Here Stein lays out a clear presentation of the positive and negative criteria for historical authenticity. The positive criteria: multiple attestation, embarrassment, dissimilarity, Aramaic linguistic and Palestinian environmental phenomena, tradition contrary to editorial tendency, frequency, and coherence. The negative criteria: contradiction of authentic sayings, environmental contradiction, and tendencies of the developing tradition. Stein’s exploration of each is helpful and enlightening, allowing him to conclude that “The burden of proof now clearly shifts from the need to prove a passage’s authenticity to the need to prove its inauthenticity.”(16)
Chapter eight: “Jesus the Seer” by Ben Witherington III focuses on the two key phrases used by Jesus: “Son of Man” and “kingdom of God.” Witherington’s goal here is to find where these two concepts occur together in the Old Testament. Witherington’s chapter contends that “there is no nonmessianic Jesus to be found at the bottom of the well of historical inquiry. Jesus made some remarkable claims for Himself and His ministry; the historian’s job is not to explain the claims away but rather to explain them.”(17) When the historian is faced with certain facts about Jesus and his claims, they cannot be ignored: “A historian has to explain how the high Christology of the church could have arisen after the unexpected and precipitous demise of Jesus through crucifixion. This conundrum becomes more puzzling, not less, for those who don’t believe in Jesus’ rising from the dead than for those who do.”(18)
Chapter nine: “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line” by Gary Habermas establishes the time line starting from the late first century and works back to the death of Jesus about 30 AD. According to Habermas, “current critical scholarship even agrees to the exceptionally early date of this proclamation [of the resurrection] as well as the eyewitness nature of those who made the claims.”(19) Habermas provides an overview of the time line: AD 60-100 The composition of the Gospels; AD 50-62 Dating the “authentic” Pauline epistles; AD 34-36 Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem; AD 45-50 Paul’s later trip to Jerusalem; AD 30-35 Back to the date of the actual events. Habermas shows that this time line is not a point of controversy, but accepted by the majority: “Virtually all critical scholars think this message began with the real experiences of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who thought that they had seen appearances of their risen Lord. It did not arise at some later date. Nor was it borrowed or invented.”(20) Habermas sees this as “the chief value of this argument. It successfully secures the two most crucial historiographical factors: (1) the reports of the original eyewitnesses, which are (2) taken from the earliest period. This is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.”(21)
Chapter ten: “How Scholars Fabricate Jesus” by Craig Evans describes and interacts with some of the distorted portraits of Jesus that have come about recently:
Many scholarly portraits and reconstructions of the historical Jesus are badly distorted through the use of documents that are late and of dubious historical value. The irony is that in trying to ‘go behind’ the New Testament Gospels and find truth buried under layers of tradition and theology some scholars depend on documents that were composed 60 to 100 years after the New Testament Gospels.(22)
Evans looks at a number of non-canonical documents, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark. He ends with a call for critical scholars to challenge extreme scholarship head-on and concludes that “if extreme scholarship is not checked, the industry of fabricating strange and eccentric Jesuses will continue.”(23)
Chapter eleven: “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?” by Daniel B. Wallace is a direct engagement with the main ideas put forth by textual critic Bart Ehrman. Regading Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, Wallace says, “One reason this book has done so well is that it appeals to the skeptic who wants reasons not to believe, who considers the Bible a book of myths.”(24) Wallace challenges Ehrman’s misleading statistics, Ehrmans’s views on the implications of “problem passages” of the New Testament text, and Ehrman’s overall approach to the New Testament documents. Wallace’s overview and correction of the primary blunders by Ehrman is sure to be helpful for those challenged by the likes of Misquoting Jesus.
Chapter twelve: “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?” by Michael J. Wilkins is a challenge to contemporary views that hold that Jesus didn’t think of himself anything other than a prophet like those of the Old Testament. Instead, Wilkins shows that Jesus had a self-understanding of a prophesied deliverer, sacrificial servant, willing Lord, and humble King.(25)
Part 3, The Coherence of Christian Doctrine, begins with chapter thirteen: “The Coherence of Theism” by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty. Here the authors seek to defend the coherence of the concept of God. They address six attributes: “necessary existence, incorporeality, essential goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and eternity.”(26) They point out: “The attributes of God are therefore not a patchwork of arbitrary characteristics. Each one is, rather, interconnected, and together they form a coherent whole. Appreciating this helps one avoid the more crude depiction of God one finds in Dawkins’s work.”(27)
Chapter fourteen: “Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God as Three and One” by Paul Copan covers the concept and difficulties of the Trinity. Copan discusses some common problems to avoid in our understanding of the trinity: overemphasizing threeness, overemphasizing oneness, rejecting equality.(28) He then lays out six considerations that will make the understanding the trinity clearer. Finally, Copan shows the philosophical and practical relevance of the Trinity.
Chapter fifteen: “Did God Become a Jew? A Defense of the Incarnation” by Paul Copan aims “to show that the incarnation, though a mystery, is a coherent one.” Copan’s task: “(1) briefly review the scriptural affirmations of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, (2) highlight three important distinctions to help us understand the incarnation, and (3) examine the question of Jesus’ temptation in light of His divinity.”(29)
Chapter sixteen is entitled: “Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution” by Steve L. Porter. The title refers to the two contrasting characters in the works of these men, as Porter explains:
The difference between these two stories [Crime and Punishment and Crimes and Misdemeanors] is extremely relevant when it comes to the doctrine of penal substitution, for it seems that most of the contemporary objections to the view that Christ suffered the punitive consequences of human sin on behalf of sinners are fueled by the fact that we in the West find ourselves more in the world of Dr. Rosenthal than Raskolnikov. The doctrine of penal substitution does not make sense to many of us because, unlike Raskolnikov, punishment in general no longer makes sense to us.(30)
Porter describes the goal of his essay “the first goal … is to clarify and defend the plausibility of the moral framework required to ground penal substitution.” … “the second goal … is to offer an argument that penal substitution is the best explanation of why Christ voluntarily went to His death.”(31) Porter sheds light on the misconceptions of our understanding of punishment, while pointing out the coherence of the doctrine as it relates to the Biblical narrative as a whole.
Chapter seventeen: “Hell: Getting What’s Good My Own Way” by Stewart Goetz was the most challenging for this reviewer. Not because of the difficulty of the concept so much as the angle the author takes in exploring it. Goetz discusses the doctrine of hell and the particular philosophical issues that it raises He asks questions about how hell relates to the good, free will, and choices. For Goetz, “heaven and hell must ultimately be understood in terms of how a person chooses to live his life in pursuit of what is good.”(32) The author raises and explores important questions – but his responses could have been presented with more clarity.
The book ends with chapter eighteen: “What Does God Know? The Problems of Open Theism” by David P. Hunt. While not addressed to atheists or non-Christians, this chapter does deal with the significant issue of the Open Theism view. This is the view that God does not have complete knowledge of the future. Hunt provides an overview of what Openists teach, followed by a critical response and survey of the scriptural data.
In sum, Contending with Christianity’s Critics is a timely and substantial contribution to contemporary apologetics and philosophy of religion. Because of its structure, it need not be read in a linear manner. The reader can pick and choose the issues or sections to work through at his/her own discretion. The weight of scholarship is impressive, and many chapters will be challenging for most readers. The book itself is entirely rewarding, and is recommended for those who want to interact with scholarly treatments of contemporary challenges to Christianity.
1 William Lane Craig, Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2009), p. viii.
2 Ibid., p. 4.
3 Ibid., James Daniel Sinclair, p. 10.
4 Ibid., p. 11.
5 Ibid., Victor Reppert, p. 27.
6 Ibid., p. 29.
7 Ibid., p. 46.
8 Ibid., Michael J. Murray, p. 47.
9 Ibid., p. 56.
10 Ibid., Mark D. Linville, p. 58.
11 Ibid., p. 63.
12 Ibid., p. 70.
13 Ibid., Gregory Ganssle, p. 74.
14 Ibid., p. 75.
15 Ibid., p. 79.
16 Ibid., Robert Stein, p. 102.
17 Ibid., Ben Witherington III, p. 111.
18 Ibid., p. 112.
19 Ibid., Gary Habermas, p. 113.
20 Ibid., p. 125.
22 Ibid., Craig Evans, p. 146-147.
23 Ibid., p. 147.
24 Ibid., Daniel B. Wallace, p. 151.
25 Ibid., Michael J. Wilkins, p. 180-181.
26 Ibid., Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty, p. 185.
28 Ibid., Paul Copan, p. 208.
29 Ibid., p. 219.
30 Ibid., Steve L. Porter, p. 234.
31 Ibid., p. 235.
32 Ibid., Stewart Goetz, p. 263.