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A Reasonable Faith

Date: 20 August 2023

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong

Sermon Text: Acts 17:1-15

20Aug23 Herald
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When I was younger, my idea of people was that they were rational creatures, logical beings, who were essentially seekers of truth, guided by reason, persuaded by argument, convinced by evidence. When I pictured a person, the dominant image was that of the head, the brain, the intellect.

And here’s the reason why. When I was 17, I joined my school’s debating team, and as part of our training we had to prepare what was known as “case files”.

In each file is a stack of papers, on each page, there is a topic, on the header, and then on one side, of the page we list all the arguments in favour of that topic, and on the other side we list all the arguments against that topic.

Here are some common topics we create case files for:

  • All people should have the right to own guns.

  • The death penalty should be abolished.

  • Human cloning should be legalized.

  • All student loan debt should be eliminated.

  • Healthcare should be universal.

  • Euthanasia should be banned.

As you can tell, as 17 year old students, we are not emotionally invested into these issues, we hardly care one way or the other. The only thing we care about is possessing and presenting better arguments than our opponents. That’s all that matters.

In fact we can’t be emotionally invested into these issues, because the reason we have to prepare these cases files is that during debating tournaments, we are only given the motion, and told which side we’re representing, 30 minutes before the debate.

It’s not like they say, “Hey, which side do you feel more strongly for, we’ll let you speak for that side”. No, we enter each debate emotionally neutral about the topic, our emotional investment is on the strength of our arguments.

And during tournaments, we sometimes serve as adjudicators for the debates of other teams, which obviously necessitates that you assume the position of a disinterested, objective, listener, you are emotionally uninvolved, you are simply there to evaluate the strength of the arguments presented before you.

So I thought that’s how human beings work. They were rational creatures, objective evaluators of evidence, who were committed to following the dictates of reason.

Which might explain the tone of my sermons. I’m working on that.

But back to debates.

The late Peter Munk and his wife Melanie, are amongst Canada’s leading philanthropists, as part of their desire to encourage robust democracy and elevate the standard of public discourse they set up a foundation which hosts debates on major policy issues, twice a year, in Canada, since 2008.

These debates have featured leading thinkers such as Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, Jordan Peterson and others.

Now the way they determine the winners of the debate is by measuring what percentage of the audience were persuaded to change their mind about the issue at the end of the debate.

So what they do, is that will poll the audience at the start of the debate to ask them to vote which side they are on. And they’ll flash up the numbers.

And then, because they’re more astute than I am about human nature, they ask another question. Which is this:

Depending on what you hear during the debate are you open to changing your vote?

Hang on a minute.

Isn’t that the point of a debate, to change minds through the presentation of arguments and reason and evidence? What even is this question? Isn’t it supposed to be a 100%?

Yes, but that assumes human beings are essentially rational beings.

And the numbers will turn up around something like this.

Never mind, not agreeing with the arguments you hear, never mind not accepting or being persuaded by what you hear. Some people are committed to their position regardless of the arguments. Some people are resolved to stick to their way of thinking regardless of the evidence that is presented to them.

Why? Because people are not essentially rational. We are emotional thinkers. We are less committed to pursuing truth than we think we are. We are more committed to psychological comfort than we care to admit.

We are far more emotionally invested in protecting our worldview, in shielding our egos, and in defending our tribe than we are in following the evidence wherever it may lead.

Like Jack Nicholson said to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, sometimes “we can’t handle the truth”.

We see this played out time and time again, in emotive issues. When parties are emotionally invested in an issue, when emotions are involved, often times, reason gets thrown out of the window. Truth is inconsequential to the argument. Facts are sacrificed on the altar of feelings.

Ask any marriage counsellor, ask anyone caught between a Republican and a Democrat, ask opposing football fans their opinion on a questionable penalty call.

In other words, as human beings, the path of least resistance will rarely, if ever, lead us to the truth. As human beings, as emotional thinkers, the path to the truth, will demand courage, it will require earnestness, it will be hard work. That’s what it takes.

And on that note, let’s turn to our text.

A Reasonable Faith
ACTS 17:1-3 1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.
Paul arrives at Thessalonica, enters the synagogue of the Jews, and what do we see him doing? For three days, he is reasoning with them, he is explaining, and he is proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Now does that seem strange? The Zeitgeist, the intellectual climate of the age, would have us believe that faith is opposed to reason. Faith, they say, “is belief in the absence of evidence”, faith is “belief contrary to reason”, faith is “belief in that which cannot be proven”.

“Faith”, as popularised by Richard Dawkins, is defined as “belief without evidence and without reason”.

So what in the world is Paul doing? For three days Paul sought to reason, and explain and prove to a hostile audience that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord and Saviour.

Why? Because faith in Christ is reasonable, its explainable, it’s demonstrable. Christian faith is evidence based.

In a debate with John Lennox, Dawkins once again said that “we only need to use the word faith when there isn’t any evidence”. Lennox responded, “Richard, I presume you’ve got faith in your wife, is there any evidence for that?” And Dawkins, eagerly replied, “Yes, plenty, plenty of evidence.” And then it dawned on him what he had just said, and the audience laughed, at which point he went “Uhm, I…” and then changed the subject.

As far as Christianity is concerned, such a definition of faith is patent nonsense. We see one of our greatest evangelists calling people to believe in Jesus not by saying: “Just believe. Close your eyes, switch off your minds, just believe.” He does it by reasoning and explaining and demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ from the Scriptures.

So why do we believe in Christianity? The same reason we believe in any else, because the evidence points to it.

But people of God, take notice of the source from which Paul reasons and explains belief in Jesus Christ. It is from the Sciptures.

I have often seen Christians attempt to evangelise by sharing their personal testimony. Which is by no means a bad thing in itself. Sharing your testimony is a good thing, but unless the testimony is really robust, it is likely to be inadequate.

What I mean is this. I hear Christians sharing their testimony and more often than not the point of their conversion occurs with a personal encounter with God. An epiphany, an impression, a sudden conviction, an undeniable experience of God.

And I go, okay, what I hear is a great reason for you to believe in Jesus. But I don’t hear a reason for them to believe in Jesus. Our subjective experiences are not transferrable to others. Ultimately, then faith must rest not the strength of our testimony, but on the solid ground of Scripture, which reveals Jesus Christ.

So take them to the Scriptures. Open up the bible, reason and explain and teach what it says. Flesh out the Word for them, that they may behold the Word made flesh.

Point 1: Beware the Irrationality of Unbelief

Now here’s the response to Paul’s three days of reasoning and explaining and proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.

ACTS 17:4-5 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews were jealous,

Some persuaded by the evidence, but the Jews were jealous.

Notice how Luke, the author, explains the reason for belief and unbelief.

Some the Jews and a great many Greeks believed because they were persuaded. A rational explanation. And note that those who were persuaded included “not a few of the leading women”, which means that these people weren’t simpletons, they weren’t gullible. They were capable of critical thought, and they persuaded into believing.

But the Jews were jealous. Which indicates that reason for unbelief is emotional, its irrational.

Now why would they be jealous? The Jews were jealous because in their worldview are they’re supposed good guys, they are the chosen ones, they’re God’s people. And the Gentiles, the Greeks, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. Pagans, unclean, uncircumcised they don’t belong to God.

But Paul proclaims Jesus Christ as Saviour of all. He came for the Romans, the Greeks, for the Singaporeans as well.

And the Jews, who reserve the right to be the chosen people of God, are provoked to jealousy.

You might say, maybe Luke is just unfairly psycho-analysing them, conveniently explaining away their unbelief as emotional.

That’s not the case. And how do we know? Because their actions speak for themselves.

and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.
6 And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

Committing violence and uttering blasphemy, these are rational responses, these emotionally driven behaviors.

Paul spent three days reasoning from Scripture that Jesus is Christ, and if he is wrong, you had three days’ worth of statements to correct and evidence to overturn and claims to debunk. They did none of that. Their response was to form a mob and attack people?

And then they dragged them to the authorities. And this is how we know beyond all doubt that they were irrational in their unbelief. They accused Paul and his fellow Christians of “acting against Caesar by saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

They were Jews, their entire theology points to Yahweh as the King. Their Psalms are replete with royal songs. Their hope of restoration rests upon the coming of the Son of David, the messianic King.

The Jews themselves believe wholeheartedly there is another king besides Caesar! And they’re going to drag the Christians into court to accuse of believing the same thing? They are sawing off the branch they are sitting upon! That’s irrational. They didn’t like the fact that the king was Jesus, who came to save whoever believes in him, whether Jew or Greek. This accusation is disingenuous, it’s not reasonable, it’s emotionally driven drivel.

How do you tell if someone has given up relying on reason and evidence to win argument? You know they have given up when they pivot to committing violence or seeking to demonise and vilify the other side. Paint them as villains and you no longer have to take seriously their arguments.

“These men who have turned the world upside down”, they said. “They are advocating treason against Caesar”, they said. Don’t bother listening to them, because they’re villians.

These men are known as Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Unlikely the biblical horsemen they have not come to herald the end to the world, they have come to bring an end to Religion.

From left to right: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennet. The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.

What is new about their brand of Atheism is not that they are saying “religion is bad”. Because that’s just historic atheism. Atheists have for centuries been saying that “religion is bad”.

What the New Atheists are saying that is that even respect for religion is bad. That even to be tolerant and respectful towards religion is bad , because religion is the worse thing that has ever happened to humankind and it needs to be wiped out from society in order for human beings to flourish.

The implication therefore is that we should not entertain friendly dialogues with Christians or engage in an honest exchange of ideas with the religious. You disdain them, you ridicule them, you dismiss them, you shut them up, you don’t engage with them.

If someone attempts to promote Nazism – Nazi ideology – in the German Parliament today, they will not have ideas debated. They will be dragged out and arrested. Because the ideas are evil and destructive to society.

These men claim that religion, like Christianity, is a malignant virus that infects mankind. The source of great evil and harm to the world today. You don’t dialogue with viruses, you eradicate it. And the sooner religion is silenced and disappears, the better.

So Christianity is under the same threat today as it was in Paul’s day. We, like Paul, Jason and the early Christians, are also accused of turning the world upside down.

We face an uphill battle against clearing our names and finding a standing ground in the marketplace of ideas.

But let’s revisit the Jewish reason for their emotional response – Jealousy. It may not be rational, but it is nonetheless legitimate. I do not wish to dismiss the emotional reason for unbelief. Because it is real, it is powerful and it is prevalent.

I once read a media editorial written by an academic describing her religious journey. She was exploring various faiths, and she ruled out Christianity from the onset. Why? Because her grandmother who raised her, and whom she dearly loved, died as a non-Christian. And she said that if she believed in Christianity, it meant that she would never be reunited with her grandmother, and even worse, she would have to believe her grandmother is languishin in hell.

She wouldn’t even entertain Christianity because of its implications, which bears great emotional consequences. Is it rational. No, it isn’t. Is it understandable. Most definitely.

When Stephen Fry, an outspoken atheist, was asked “Suppose religion was true, and you died and you walked up to the pearly gates and you met God. What would you say to him?”

Fry replied “I’d say, Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?” “How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.”

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” Fry said. “That’s what I would say.”

It’s a very emotional response. Yes, it alludes to the logical problem of evil. But it’s primarily emotional. He frames his statements as questions, but they’re not true questions. They’re rhetorical. They accusations. Fry has made up his mind to scold God if he sees him.

Is that a rational position to hold? Where dialogue isn’t even on the table? No. It’s emotional position. But can we sympathise with it. Of course, we can.

Have you seen bone cancer slowly destroy a child? Have you witnessed brain tumour eat away at a kid you love? When Kianna was 4, she had to be in warded into ICU 4 times within the span of a year. And each time she went in, we didn’t know if she would make it out. And while I was at her bedside, I told her God is good, and in my head knew he was. But where moments, too many to mention, when my heart didn’t believe it. Emotions are capable of making very powerful arguments as well, perhaps even greater than what reason can conjure.

There have so many others who left the faith, left behind belief in God, because they were hurt and abused and ostracised by the church. And they become emotionally invested in unbelief.

My point is this: whereas the non-Christian need to beware the irrationality of unbelief, the Christian must be sensitive to the emotional resistance and rejection and opposition to the faith.

We may have reasons for belief, but we are not proclaiming Christ to disembodied brains. We are seeking to persuade to emotional thinkers – human beings with both a heart and head.

Point 2: Pursue the Earnestness that leads to Belief

Now let’s look at a different response from the Jews in Thessalonica.

ACTS 17:10-12 10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.
11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.

Paul and Silas repeated their act. They arrived at a new city, found the synagogue and began reasoning and explaining and proclaiming Jesus as the Christ from the Scriptures,

This time, the Jews didn’t respond with jealousy.

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Do note: the Bereans were not commended for their gullibility, for their childish, witless, blind faith. They weren’t commended for being uncritical and unquestioning and simply swallowing hook, line and sinker whatever comes out of Paul’s mouth. No.

They were commended for their eagerness to think hard, to examine daily, to determine if what Paul said was true.

It is an emphatically rational response to Paul’s evangelism.

And the result? Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.

Why do Christians believe in Jesus Christ? Because we believe he is the Truth. Now how does one arrive at the truth? You examine the evidence. You interrogate the witnesses, you examine the evidence and you keep doing that.

Examination, cross-examination, that’s our best shot at arriving at the truth of the matter. It’s 2023, and for all our advances in science and technology, it is still the methodology we employ in a courtroom to get to the truth of a situation. It’s been the same way for millennia. And its hard work, it requires reading, it thinking, and questioning, and thinking again and asking deeper questions, and examining more evidence. But that’s how we get to the truth.

It's not any easy thing. But we invested in the truth or not? Are we willing to follow wherever the evidence leads? Are we committed to living a life that is aligned to the truth, whatever it may entail?

Examination is how you get to the truth.

If Christianity is true, it will not shy away from examination. In the same way that gold is refined and is revealed most clearly by subjecting it to the fire, so the truth will be revealed in the cauldron of examination and questions. The dross of untruths will burn away.

If Christianity is true, it will withstand examination. And every question asked of it will only serve to lead the questioner closer to Christ. Otherwise, it’s not true. Because that’s the nature of truth – it is revealed through asking questions.

And the question for non-Christians listening today, is this: “Are you willing to examine the Scriptures, are you willing ask questions of Christianity to see if we have reasonable answers for our faith are you willing to spend time with us, to sit down with us to see if Christianity makes any sense?”

In Mt Hermon, we run a course called Christianity explored, a 7 session course designed to bring you through the Gospel of John to hear about Jesus from the Scriptures and to ask questions that you may have about our faith. Reach out to us, email us, call us, grab one of us by the hallway and ask about it or anything else.

Are you willing to do that?

If you are not, then how do you know if your unbelief is rational? If the Bible is right, and rational inquiry leads to faith whereas irrationality leads away from it, then we need to need to reckon with the possibility that your unbelief is irrational. Perhaps it is more emotionally rooted than you think.

I urge you, if you are not a Christian today, to critically examine your unbelief, to see if it holds up to scrutiny and inquiry. To see if it is reasonable and whether it provides the best answers to big questions of life.

If you’re not a Christian, we invite you to examine the faith.

If you are a Christian, here’s the question for you. Are you a Berean Christian?

In other words, are you a Christian that knows their stuff, or is your theology mostly second-hand information. You know only because “so-and-so” say this, “so-and-so” says that, over the pulpit.

Or have you earnestly examined the Scriptures and have come to your own conclusions about what God says?

To put it another way, are you earnest about studying the bible? Are you diligent in preparing for CG bible studies? Are you even in a CG?

Some of you might say, “Ps Luwin, bible study is a young people’s thing. You get your young adults to do. We old already, brain not so good, cannot study already”. Let me tell you, I sat into a bible study last week with a group of senior ladies from Hermon. They’re ladies, so I won’t venture to speculate their ages, but they are definitely not young adults.

But their answers to the bible study questions, where some of the most thorough, most accurate and most well-thought through answers I have come across in my years of leading bible studies. I know this, because I vetted the questions and answers to that study. And I know how much effort it takes to get to the standard of responses.

So no, the elderly does not get a pass. You can do it. Less TV, less Netflix, you can do it.

And also don’t tell me, “Old already, tired, no energy for CG, count me out.” Hello, two 75 year olds are running for President in two weeks. Why? Because the nation of Singapore is important to them. Is the kingdom of Christ important to you? That’s the heart of it really.

The younger folks, you don’t get a pass either. Guys, if there’s time for F1 and Wimbledon and Wembley. There’s time of CG. Ladies, Taylor Swift come, you manage to get tickets. March 2024, you free to go or not? Huh, what kind of question? Already there, bro. Already there. It’s a matter of priority isn’t it?

The Bereans examined the Scriptures daily, not because they had nothing else to do, but because this was important to them. And they were commended for it.

Are you a Berean Christian? Will you be one today?

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