Is Christianity Rational? A Look at Athenagoras of Athens

Greek for “[those who are] without God.

One worldview that challenges Christianity in the West is that of metaphysical naturalism. According to this worldview, there is only the material world. There is no creator God – the world came about by chance. There is no God sovereign over the past, present, and future – the universe is but a cause and effect system. Beauty and morality are not rooted in the nature of God – they are rooted in physical causes and explainable only through physical means. Christians follow an ancient, outdated religion that presents a faulty view of the world. For some, Christians are unreasonable for not only believing that God exists, but also for believing that the Bible is God’s word that informs their knowing.

While this challenge speaks to the time in which we live, it is not unique to 21st century Christians. Even as early as the second century Christians faced challenges from the Romans for irrationality. In his Embassy for the Christians, Athenagoras addresses this charges in his answer to the Roman claim that Christians are atheists.

If the fifth-century historian Philip of Side is correct, Athenagoras was a Platonist philosopher who headed the Academic School in Alexandria. Then around 176 AD, Athenagoras became a Christian through reading Scripture (which he initially sought to refute). After his salvation, he wrote two works (that we know of) in defense of Christianity (Embassy for the Christians) and on the nature of man (On the Resurrection of the Dead). Unfortunately, little is known of Athenagoras, yet he stands among the great early Christian apologists.

In Embassy, Athenagoras writes to Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius on behalf of Christianity calling for a fair hearing. Appealing to their status as philosophers of high standing, Athenagoras argues that Christians should – at the very least – be placed on equal footing with the philosophers. That is, he does not seek to equate Christianity with pagan philosophy; rather, by pointing out the beliefs espoused by the Romans’ revered philosophers, it should be clear that Christianity is more reasonable and good in its doctrine. Thus, Christians should not be persecuted for such charges as atheism.

Religion in ancient Rome was not a private or personal matter – a matter of choice or merely personal piety. Rather, religion was intricately and intimately intertwined in the political and societal life of the Roman Empire. Though even a summary discussion of Roman religion is beyond the scope of this post (see John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985]), let it suffice here that the worship of Roman gods lent to (in part) the protection of and blessing of the State. Thus, the Christians’ refusal to worship the pagan gods was seen as a seditious act. Further, the Romans were skeptical toward anything that was new. By worshipping one God (monotheism), the Christians were considered atheists in the Romans’ eyes. Christians, then, essentially denied the divine, hence their atheism. Seditious and atheistic, the Christians were a threat to the very stability of the Roman Empire. What person in their right mind would walk in such a manner?

The primary mode of attack in Athenagoras’ Embassyis to address the charge of atheism. If he could eliminate the charge of atheism, then the validity of the other charges would dissipate. Athenagoras’ takes a two-pronged approach by addressing the philosophers’ own monotheism and ‘irrationality.’ 

In Chapter 5, Athenagoras quotes two well-known playwrights – Euripides and Sophocles – who posit that there can only be one true God and that the so-called gods of Rome have no real existence. Though these playwrights (and other philosophers) affirmed monotheism, they did not believe in God as revealed in Christ. Nevertheless, by quoting from the Romans’ own revered poets, he sheds light on their inconsistencies. If Roman poets and philosophers reject polytheism yet are lauded, why are Christians – who likewise reject polytheism – persecuted?

In Chapters 15 and 16 of The Embassy, argues that it is the Romans, not the Christians, who are irrational in their beliefs. Following Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:9-20), Athenagoras exposes the folly of idol worship. Christians worship the one true God, who is not of this world. The one true God is not of, nor is like, his creation; he is the cause of all things and sits in majesty over creation. The Roman gods, however, are like humans in that they are made of material things. The so-called gods of Rome are but created things – they are blind and impotent. Though Athenagoras’ point was the impiety of the Romans (and not the Christians), we see implied as well the irrationality of worshipping Roman gods. For, according to Plato (whom the Romans claimed), “that which is called heaven and earth has received many blessing from the Father, but yet partakes of the body; hence it cannot possibly be free from change” (quoted by Athenagoras). Romans, then, worshipped imperfect, creature-like gods, unworthy of one’s worship. Christians, on the other hand, worship the one true God who made all things and is above all things. Perfect and holy, God alone is worthy of one’s worship. Who, then, is lacking reason? The Romans for their worship of corruptible things.

Though Athenagoras’ apologetic may sound foreign to modern ears, the heart of his message rings true in the 21st century. Christians may no longer be labelled atheists, and modern atheists may claim the crown of rationality, but his appeal to what is rational speaks to our challenges today. How is it that Christians are irrational for their worship of the Creator God? The appeal to science for truth – ultimate truth – is a leap of faith. Metaphysical naturalists essentially have faith that science and reason will always lead us to untarnished truth. But an appeal to finite and contingent human reason as the arbiter of truth is a recipe for uncertainty and confusion. Creatures relying upon creation alone for universal truth is akin to the Romans praying to material idols for protection and blessings. Christianity, on the other hand, accords with reason for all of creation points to the reality of and existence of God (Romans 1:20).

Athenagoras provides other helpful arguments in the defense of the Christian faith. To read more, see: Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians: The Resurrection of the Dead, trans. Joseph Hugh Crehan, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 23. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956).

Apologetics: Can Someone Believe in Natural Selection and the Reality of Evil?

The topic of evolution has had considerable play in our culture. The debate has essentially remained the same for a century and a half – is evolution compatible or incompatible with Christianity? Challenges to Christianity have been leveled by a group called the New Atheists, who understand the world through evolutionary lenses.

Though the New Atheists’ popularity among academics has waned somewhat, they still have quite a bit of traction among the general public. For the most part, their works are accessible (easy to read) and are readily available. Further, their ability to communicate difficult matters in an approachable manner allow the New Atheists’ ideas to reach a wider audience. Thus, they remain today a formidable challenge for Christians to answer.

Interestingly, there is one point on which Christians and New Atheists can agree – the reality of evil. If you were to read the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, you’d find that one of their biggest objections to Christianity is the problem of evil. Sam Harris has spent considerable time on the reality of evil (The End of Faith) and on a related issue – the grounding of morality (The Moral Landscape). But, while we can agree with the New Atheists regarding the reality of evil, there is much they leave to be desired, particularly how one can know that evil exists.

Today (8/8/17), I had an article published in Themelios titled “Natural Selection and an Epistemology of Evil: An Incompatible Pair.” In summary, I argue that one cannot hold to a belief in natural selection (a key aspect of Darwinian evolution which the New Atheists hold to) and in the reality of evil. In short, I argue that if natural selection were true, then what we perceive as evil is really just the natural working out of the blind, impersonal process of natural selection. Any act of evil from one human to another is really just the struggle of a species to survive and advance. If natural selection were true, then one cannot know what evil is and that something is evil – evil isn’t real. Thus, the New Atheists’ appeal to the problem of evil begs the question – they assume what evil is and then point to evidence of evil to support their arguments against Christianity.

The New Atheists’ appeal to evil as an argument against Christianity just simply does not work.

Living in a Virtual World, and I am a Virtual Guy

[Article referenced: John Tierney, “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch,” NY Times, [on-line], published 14 August 2007.]

Since time began, philosophy, theology, science and other disciplines have been seeking the answers to such questions as “Why are we here?”, “Who or what put us here?”, to “What is the real meaning or purpose for all of this?”  Most arguments, past and present, operate within the framework of the world as we see it, re-working theories, ideas and arguments of the past, or developing new theories to try to come up with the answer for everything.  These answers ultimately argue, either directly or indirectly, for or against God or, at the least, a Supreme Being.  According to John Tierney, we’ve been asking the wrong questions and operating from the wrong framework.  Rather, we should be asking, “Is it possible that we live in someone’s virtual world?” Continue reading