An imaginative apologetic: Jesus or Nothing
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the following, Boyce College dean Dan DeWitt discusses his new book, Jesus or Nothing, with Towers editor Aaron Cline Hanbury.
ACH: What is this book?
DD: Probably the best way to answer that is to unpack the title. Some people have been excited about the book because they think it’s kind of like “Jesus or bust,” you know, “It’s all or nothing,” and I can see where they would get that. But really “nothing” represents a worldview that sees the universe as pointing to itself, containing its own answers — Carl Sagan’s “the cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.” And so the “nothing” is just a universe that has no transcendent meaning, no objective purpose or intrinsic worth. Either there’s a transcendent God who has revealed himself or we live in a universe that ultimately doesn’t care. So that’s the title, Jesus or Nothing: it’s Jesus or an atheistic worldview.
ACH: What are the two major premises in Jesus or Nothing?
DD: There are two propositions that I’m working on throughout the book. The first proposition is if atheism is true, there’s a loss of objective meaning and intrinsic worth. That’s not to say there’s not proximate meaning, but it’s just not objective; it’s not true for all people in all places at all time. And worth is not intrinsic to who we are; it’s something extrinsic. That’s one proposition I hope readers deal with, and that some of my skeptic friends have been dealing with in a really impressive way.
And the other proposition is, if Christianity is true, it would offer those things, objective values and intrinsic worth. So I hope readers will deal with that and respond to that, and I look forward — even as painful as it might be at times to read some of the reviews — to seeing how they’re doing just that.
ACH: You write that there are two routes humanity takes apart from God: hedonism and humanism. Can you explain that?
DD: In Romans 1, Paul says that God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen in what is made and that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, which is totally different from Psalm 19, where the heavens declare the glory of God. So you see a contrast between, for a believer, the heavens declare glory and, for an unbeliever, they declare wrath. And it’s in Romans 1 where you see people who worship creation rather than creator, suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness: that’s a hedonistic worldview, where pleasure becomes the highest virtue. And then, in Romans 2, you see religious leaders who are trying to establish righteousness apart from Christ, trying to use the law to justify themselves. That fits into a religious humanism where we’re the measure and the standard for our own goodness and where we can merit worth before God on our own.
Those are the flip sides of the same coin (the coin being our rebellion against God that manifests itself through hedonism and humanism). I think that’s a theme throughout Scripture — you see mankind going to one or the other. And I actually think the religious tendencies are the darker side of our depravity.
ACH: Why is Jesus better?
DD: Jesus is only better if the story is true. That’s where I think atheists are right: wishful thinking doesn’t change reality. But, I think on the other side of the coin, if we really don’t believe there’s free will and yet we live like there’s free will, that’s wishful thinking too. But if Christianity is true, we do have objective values and intrinsic worth. So it’s a hypothetical postulation: if Christianity is true, then it is better. If it’s false, then, as C.S. Lewis said, “Christianity, if true, is of utmost importance, if false is of no importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” And that’s why Pascal said his approach to apologetics was to seek to demonstrate that Christianity is plausible and desirable and then to show that it’s true. So I think Jesus, what he offers, is plausible and desirable. And in the end we find that those things only matter because the gospel is true.
ACH: You write that the gospel is the “theist’s guide to reality” and the “theory of everything.” Can you tease out these concepts?
DD: Theism best describes the world we live in. We are personal, rational beings who long for transcendence; we place trust in our cognitive abilities, our minds. I think theism gives a good reason for that. But, if the ultimate reality behind everything is just matter, eternal, non-personal, non-rational matter, then it’s hard to say we have good reason to trust our minds. Even the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, at New York University, in his recent, controversial book, says there must be something behind the cosmos other than just matter. Of course he doesn’t say what it is. The theism seems to answer that.
But theism only takes us so far, and theism can’t make sense out of the fact that we live in a world where children are discarded and where women are raped. And not just moral evil, which is certainly horrific, but natural evil: there are tsunamis in which thousands of people die. Theism has a hard time making sense of that apart from the gospel. So theism best describes reality, the gospel best describes theism.
ACH: Who is Zach?
DD: Zach is a fictional person. And I don’t make that clear at the beginning of the book, and I don’t feel like I have to because he’s a composite personality of all these different people I’ve met, as I say at the end of the book.
And so Zach, in my mind, is the representation of anyone who has been burned by religion, who has felt like the church offered shallow answers and found a more plausible explanation in a universe that has its own answers without any reference to a supernatural source. So Zach’s a bunch of people. Even a little bit of me.
ACH: How much of Zach is autobiographical?
DD: I think one of the reasons there are some strong elements of my own story in Zach is, one, I can relate to some of the doubts that somebody like Zach would have. I think one of the dangerous things we do in church sometimes is to get people to suppress their doubts instead of dealing with them. And I’ve also seen the ugliness of fundamentalism and a kind of an anti-intellectual ethos and why people like Zach, who’ve grown up around that, find it intellectually repulsive and have been burned by it. And so I can relate to that and I try to relate that to readers for them. I wanted to be a little bit more empathetic for people who walk away from the faith. It’s usually not because someone wakes up one day and says, “I want to defy all things that are good and pure and noble in society,” but some people just find it impossible to believe and part of the reason it’s impossible to believe for them at that time — Lord willing, the gospel will break through at some point — is that they haven’t been around an appealing presentation of the Christian faith.
ACH: How did your experiences shape the writing of the book?
DD: I mention early on the Campus Church and our ministry at the University of Louisville, which really had an impact on me probably in a deeper way than our ministry had an impact on anyone else. One of the first sermons I preached at the Campus Church was “What I love about the gospel.” And that sermon is actually the foundation for the book: three of the main points through the chapters come right out of the sermon that was preached from Colossians.
I remember we had Dr. [R. Albert Mohler Jr.] come in and speak on his book, Atheism Remix, and a really sharp, articulate skeptic student asked a fair question and had a winsome response to Dr. Mohler. And I went to him and asked him if we could meet. So we started meeting; we’d meet for coffee and that developed into a friendship and a relationship. He was even a regular part of our ministry. And so some encounters like that, and that one in particular, had a deep impact on me to see that, one, we need to be careful about the ways Christians often caricature atheists and, also, often Christians are slow to listen.
So one of the things I want to do in the book, and hopefully I do well sometimes — I’m sure at other times I would have friends who would push back and say, ‘You know, you’re being a little preachy here’ — is to demonstrate and model a bit more dialogue than just monologue. That’s what I experienced on a secular campus, and that’s what’s I hope to accomplish in the book.
ACH: How do you see believers using the book?
DD: The way I would hope Christians use the book would be to grow in their compassion for people who don’t believe. That may sound like a weird goal for this book, but I hope that a Christian parent, for example, who maybe has a college student who has walked away from the faith, can empathize a bit more and understand perhaps what had led to their journey. Of course, every story is completely different, but I really do hope that’s accomplished: that believers will read it and be more empathetic and they’ll be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Dan DeWitt serves as dean of Boyce College. Along with authoring Jesus or Nothing, he is editor of A Guide to Evangelism. You can connect with DeWitt through his website or on twitter. This interview originally appeared in the April 2014 issue to Towers.
Join Dan DeWitt as he teaches an Alumni Academy Course on Jesus or Nothing May 22-23, 2014 at Southern. Alumni Academy classes are free for Alumni or prospective students. You can learn more by visiting sbts.edu/events.