Listening In: Paul Copan

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Christian philosopher Paul Copan.

Paul Copan has done groundbreaking work in explaining tough questions about God to both Christian and non-Christian audiences. He’s the author or co-author of more than 25 books, including Is God a Moral Monster? and Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. He’s a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida where he teaches philosophy and ethics. He’s also a past president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. I had this conversation with Paul Copan that the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Denver. He was presenting a paper discussing why people who were never raised in the Christian faith come to faith in Christ and why some people who were raised in the faith fall away. I began by asking him about that second group: Why do some people raised in the faith fall away from the faith?

Paul Copan, welcome back to the program. You were on with me a couple of years ago, whenever we were both at Summit Ministries down in Manitou Springs, Colorado. We are back in Colorado, but not at Summit. We’re at the Evangelical Theological Society and you presented a paper today which was fascinating on why folks who were raised in a Christian faith leave that faith and then why many of them, some of them, come back or perhaps in some cases why people who’ve never been exposed to the faith convert. So let’s start with that first group. The folks that were maybe raised in the faith, but at some point fall away. What are some of the reasons they fall away?

PAUL COPAN, GUEST: One of the reasons that they fall away is sometimes just a matter of having intellectual doubts, wondering about questions that they have. And what adds to the problem is that they often find in their own churches that there is no one who is first taking their question seriously, or if they do, listen to them and try to tackle their questions, the answers are not very satisfying. And so, this is one way in which, you know, people who are growing up in the church, they are, just find that apparently the Christian faith doesn’t have answers to my questions. Other times, it could be a matter of kind of obviously a certain cultural mood that contributes to this. It’s been said that we live in a secular age, which one philosopher, Charles Taylor has defined it as basically being an era in which belief in God is contestable, that there are many options, not just one. And so we live in an environment in which encourages kind of a critical stance that the burden of proof is now on the person who claims to be a believer and atheism or skepticism is the default position. So if you want to make a case for your viewpoint, the person in question is going to be the believer.

And so the atheist in a sense or the skeptic thinks he can sit back and just let the Christian make his case. But actually everyone has a worldview. Everyone has in a sense a burden of proof because we all believe certain things. We take a stance on things. But that’s kind of a side note there. There are some people who… I just recently talked to a pastor who was struggling with the problem of evil and he was thinking about stepping away from the ministry because he just didn’t, he felt like he didn’t have the resources to address a deep evil that his community had to deal with. And so the problem of evil is often one of those factors. I think another question, again, that’s related to the intellectual of courses is could the whole science issue. Does science conflict with the Christian faith?

And so some of those tensions are sometimes added. We can also add the issue of hypocrisy, that people who are within the church see their leaders, see those or even their parents who were supposed to be examples of living consistent Christian lives and they see hypocrisy that is there, that that becomes a real stumbling block for them. And so they find that they’re turned off to what they see in the church—maybe pastors failing or parents being inconsistent in their profession with how they live it out and so forth. So that hypocrisy issue also is something that looms large in this conversation. So those are the few things that I think are worth considering.

SMITH: Well, Paul, everything that you’ve said so far and I think I’m saying this accurately are kind of other focused, right? The hypocrisy of others or science or even doubt might be motivated by something they see in the world around them. What role does, say, personal morality play where people will engage in sin that they don’t want to give up? Is that a role in people leaving the faith?

COPAN: We should certainly keep that in mind, too. That there are, in fact Dan Wallace who teaches at Dallas theological seminary. I was corresponding with him about a claim that he made that 99 percent of liberal New Testament scholars and theologians, he said that they grew up in conservative or fundamentalistic homes. And, of course, one of the problems that is kind of widespread is that no one would be listening to the sorts of questions that they would be raising. And we’d already talked about that. But he said that he finds that secondly, many of these scholars, and again, he’s speaking more anecdotally according to his experience, but he said that many of these scholars haven’t had a heart commitment for one thing, that many of them just didn’t really have genuine encounter with the Lord. But also he said many of them leave the faith because of moral or ethical failure.

He said he considers this to be the number one reason, but often they don’t speak about it and we’ll use secondary motives for their main reasons. So, again, as I said, this is just anecdotal, but I think it is very telling that we should not exclude the moral component. You know, if someone starts to sleep around with his girlfriend and suddenly has questions about God’s existence or says, I’ve got a lot of doubts about God. Well, it’s not surprising that there’s a connection, there’s a new authority that has stepped in, namely that person who’s sleeping with his girlfriend and God’s authority is now being diminished.

SMITH: Well, there are a lot of people, Paul, that encounter the issue, that you’ve talked about: science and the challenges that science has to faith, doubts of  related to maybe a tragedy that happened in their life and the problem of evil or the problem of pain, or even sexual immorality and they’ve repented in and stepped away from that and back towards faith. In other words, not everybody that encounters these causes immediately move to the effect of faithlessness. Is there something that keeps some people from sort of stepping over that line into faithlessness and others not?

COPAN: Well, it’s, again, you kind of take these sorts of things on a case by case basis. But I think that sometimes we have the wrong kind of view of faith and maybe there’s just one thing that we could talk about. I think a lot of people in our day have this view that if you have any shadow of a doubt about something, a smidgen of doubt, then you can’t know anything then you can’t really be a faithful Christian, that you can’t actually even know anything if you have any sort of doubts. And I think this is a false understanding of what’s going on. Some people think you’ve got to have 100 percent certainty in order to know something. But how do you know that you have to have 100 percent certainty in order to know something? How can you show with 100 percent certainty that knowledge requires 100 percent certainty?

I think that we — the Scriptures talk about having mercy on those who doubt and and we see that doubt is something that comes to all of us and we don’t, therefore, toss everything out just because this doubt springs up. We can ask the question as Dallas Willard did, what about doubting our doubts instead of always doubting our beliefs? Maybe our doubts need to be second guessed rather than giving them the priority. And so I think that in the case of those who have these doubts and think about tossing way the Christian faith, I think, well, you have to ask the question, what are the alternatives to which you’re going? Do we all have questions? Sure we do. But do we have to resolve everything in order to be true and consistent and faithful? No, not at all.

Every worldview is going to have its challenges. Every worldview is going to bring forth certain doubts and I think the question remains well, which worldview actually does the best job of answering the sorts of questions that we need to be addressing when it comes to not just reasons for belief in God, but also how do we deal with our guilt and shame and so forth. These are also questions that need to be asked. What about my significance? What about my identity? What about security and so forth? How do I deal with the fear of death and so forth? So those are also questions that maybe need to be brought in and yes, you may have some doubts, but you don’t throw the whole thing out just because you have doubt. I mean, John the Baptist was a doubter and Jesus reminded him of who he was. And so he doesn’t chastise him, condemn him, but works with those doubts. And I think we ought to have that same kind of attitude is we kind of process the doubts and giving people the room to think through their faith without feeling like they can’t be a true or good Christian if they have doubts.

SMITH: Well, Paul, there’s another side to that coin. We’ve talked about why people leave the faith. Talk about why people come to the faith.

COPAN: I think the problem that we often face is we can be discouraged by hearing stories of people who leave the Christian faith and maybe don’t come back, but there’s great encouragement because there are people who are coming to the Christian faith and find that this is solid, that it answers the deepest questions that they have. It addresses the deepest inner longings that human beings have and they find that this is a very safe and satisfying stopping point or end point to their journey. They have found what they’ve been looking for. And so I’ve met with plenty of people who have come to the Christian faith and I think one thing to keep in mind too, is that many people who are naturalists who believe that the physical world is all the reality that there is that many of them recognize that all those things that make us human, all those things that we take for granted about ourselves—rationality, consciousness, morality, that we are moral beings, that we have duties to fulfill the reality of beauty and so forth—that many naturalists will admit that their own naturalistic worldview cannot actually, the metaphysics cannot sustain that kind of an outcome. That it’s just a conundrum. It a problem. Of course, if God exists, then you’ve got a basis for consciousness. You’ve got a basis for a beauty. You’ve got a basis for human dignity and worth and duties and so forth. You’ve got a basis for rationality that we can trust the workings of our mind because we had made in the image of a being rational and truthful and so forth. So, the Christian faith has great resources and a lot of naturalists actually recognize how far short naturalism falls in accounting for these sorts of things. And I wrote an essay for a book once it’s called The Naturalists Are Declaring the Glory of God in which I simply quote naturalists who actually helped to make a very good case for God’s existence because of this indeed recognition of the lack that naturalism has to account for these fundamental features of reality.

I think also, too, that when we’re looking at this issue, I think we need to be reminded and encouraged not only by those naturalists, but also by the fact that there are many scientists, credentialed scientists who have a spiritual vitality or at least are interested in “spirituality,” not necessarily Christians, but they recognize that mere science isn’t going to be adequate to address who we are as human beings and deal with those matters of significance and so forth.

SMITH: Well, Paul, is there something that you can say maybe your research has turned up that that sort of is a difference maker between those that look out at the world and see the culmination of billions and billions of random events and those that look out at the world and see a designer, creator?

COPAN: I think that one starting point, again, it’s often cited as a reason for why people leave the faith and it’s also even naturalists will use this general argument against the Christian faith and that the reality of evil.

Well, if you believe that the universe is the product of all of these blind molecules in motion, deterministic forces and so forth, how do you even come up with the idea of evil? I say, yeah, is evil the problem? Of course. Everyone has to deal with the problem of evil. It’s not just the Christian who has to deal with it. The problem is if you reject God, then you only make matters worse. If there is no god, things just are what they are. There is no way things ought to be. Evil presupposes a way things ought to be. It’s kinda like counterfeit money. You can’t understand or make sense of counterfeit money unless you’ve got the real currency and in the same way we can’t make sense of evil unless we’ve got an idea of what the design plan is, what the standard is. And so I think as we deal with the problem of evil, I think this is a great pathway forward because if evil is going to be used against God, we have to ask, well, where do you get that standard?

The atheist has two problems to deal with: the problem of evil as well as the problem of goodness. Secondly, if there is no god and we face this evil well, we are losing out on a lot of resources because in the Christian faith, God actually steps into our world and seeks to address the problem of evil, overcome evil, set in motion a new heavens and a new earth in which all the tiers will be wiped away and so forth. God gets his feet dirty and hands bloody. That is a credit to the Christian faith. We see that the Christian faith is taking evil seriously. We also recognize that if God exists, he is going to set matters right in the end. There will be cosmic justice. God is going to step in and bring an end to evil. He is going to judge evil. He is going to reward those who are faithfully seeking him. And so, but if there is no god, there is no cosmic justice. Hitler got away with murder millions of times over. Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, too. And so we see that there’s something terrible about this picture, that these injustices go unaddressed. God guarantees that cosmic justice will be done and that virtue and happiness will coincide. Naturalism cannot guarantee that.

SMITH: Well, it sounds like what you’re saying — I’m a fan of the novelist David Foster Wallace who was not a Christian, but he gave a famous commencement speech at I believe it was Oberlin College that said everybody worships. Everybody worships something. And it sounds like in a way that’s what you’re saying as well.

COPAN: Absolutely. Everyone will have to take a stance on something. You will take a point of privilege and stand there. And so the question when you face the problem of evil is this, am I, you know, as I look at this evil in the world or maybe this evil event that has taken place in my life, am I going to let that shape how I look at the world? Am I going to let that basically, you know, color as it were, how I look at everything? Is that going to in a sense displace a god who has given himself through Jesus Christ, facing evil and injustice, this cruel death on the cross, yet is victorious in resurrection and guarantees that justice is going to be done. Am I going to privilege my encounter with evil over against that God of love who guarantees everything is going to be set right in the end? Am I going to privilege my own viewpoint and my own maybe bitterness or negativity against, say, the perspective of Jesus who is the great, you know, considered by so many to be this great spiritual authority.

So basically, am I going to say, oh, I’m going to go with my own authority as opposed to going with Jesus. I mean, if I’ve got to choose, I mean I’d better go with Jesus, a much more trustworthy, a much more reliable authority than my own experiences that could come and go and can be falsely shaped to distort reality and so forth.

SMITH: Well, Paul, when you say it that way, only an idiot would choose otherwise, right? But people are often not going through that sort of a logical, rational thought process when they come to faith, are they?

COPAN: That’s correct. And I think, but a lot of times in the midst of our own crises, in the midst of our own coming to terms with who we are as human beings, I mean, we find it. I’ll give an example of a Francis Bufford who wrote — former atheist who left atheism and wrote a book called Unapologetic on how, why the Christian faith make surprisingly emotional sense.

He tells about his story. He said, it turned out the atheism turned out not to contain what my soul needed for nourishment and bad times. It was not any kind of philosophical process that led me out from unbelief or disbelief I had made a mess of my life and I needed mercy. And to my astonishment, mercy was there. An experience of mercy rather than an idea of it. And the rest followed from there. I felt my way back to Christianity, discovering through many surprises that the religion I remembered from my childhood looked different if you came to it as an adult with adult needs. Not pretty, not small, not ridiculous, but—I like this—but tough and gigantic and marvelous. So here, what he had grown up with, what he had despised because it just didn’t seem to make sense or meet the needs, as an adult he found that this faith is strong enough to sustain him and to hold him and that this is the testimony of many others who as they faced death and I know people who, when they encountered death in their own families and they were atheists, they just didn’t know. Atheism was not a resource to help them through this time that, you know, just to think of my mother or my sister in their deaths as simply being organisms that just are passing through. A friend of mine, Darren said, I just couldn’t — My atheism could not help me to come to terms with that. I needed something bigger, something to make sense of  these deaths in my life that happened in the space of a year. So, I think that as we look at these sorts of things, find out how people have come to faith. Sometimes it is through encounter with evil. If we get rid of God, we only make matters worse.

SMITH: Paul, I’ve heard you say, and I think you’ve even written an article about this topic that the point of apologetics is not to win arguments, but to win hearts and that when you said that it had a powerful impact on me. And I know that what you have said so far is helpful in that process. But can you be specific, if we have listeners, folks that care about their family, about their friends, about their neighbors, are trying to win their hearts and not just merely went arguments, how can what you’ve shared inform those conversations and relationships?

COPAN: I think in the first place, it’s important for us as Christians to be good listeners. To, first of all, just open up the dinner table for questions and doubts that our children have, my wife and I, we do that on a regular basis. What sorts of questions do you kids have? Things that come up, they went to public school. What sorts of things are you talking about? What sorts of things raise questions in your mind about God, about the Bible, about Jesus and so forth, and that that just gives them the freedom to ask questions and if parents don’t know, that’s okay. They can explore the answers together, but they shouldn’t quiet or silence their kids because they’re asking too many questions. I think we do ourselves a disservice by closing the door to questions and just telling them to pray more. Read the Bible, have faith, don’t doubt and so forth that only is going to harm them in the long run. Show them that the Christian faith can stand up to questions, is not afraid to address the big questions, and then as you look at the history of the church, there’s a great tradition of tackling those tough questions.

I think secondly, the importance of stories. Stories have power and it’s not only the stories of de-conversion that we should be paying attention to. We should also pay attention to those who have come to the Christian faith, they’ve seen it’s robust power to address the sorts of questions that we have both intellectually as well as our deepest longings. And so we need to show that there is this connection that the Christian faith addresses the needs of our mind, but also the deep longings of our hearts as well. We also, I think, need to keep in mind that we, as we process this, that you cannot avoid taking a position on something. You’re not going to be neutral. You’re going to privilege one position or one idea or one perspective over against another. You cannot escape an authoritative stance. The question is, am I going to trust my doubt more than I’m going to trust Christ and what God has done for us through him in the death and his death and resurrection? Am I going to privilege my experience with evil over against what God has done in Christ through his death and resurrection? Again, we’re not gonna be able to avoid privileging a particular position. I think it’s helpful for us to keep in mind that kind of a perspective. Also, I think it’s very helpful to keep in mind, too, that God can speak to us through different ways. Some people come to faith in Christ through the use of literature and the imagination, through the arts and so forth. n my presentation today I was talking about Louise Cowan, who didn’t really, the logical arguments didn’t really connect with her, but when she started to read the classics, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and so forth, she saw that there was a power. She came to see her own humanity and sin and human depravity in all of its depths. And so she came to see that the gospel is a solution to all of these things. And as she came in touch with her own humanity, she saw that the gospel offered us response to this. Same thing with C.S. Lewis. And we can talk about others, beauty, aesthetics, you know, and also existential crises. There’s a whole array of things that can speak to us. And so we need to be clued in where apologetics and philosophical arguments may not speak. There may be other pathways into which we can engage a person, by the imagination and thus kind of addressing their reason through the imagination. Then finally penetrating their will.

SMITH: Well our friend Greg Koukl, who is, he tells us in one of his books, Tactics that we should ask questions. And you talked about asking your children at the dinner table, you know, what do you have doubts about? What are you concerned about? What do you not understand? A lot of times people won’t answer that question when asked so directly. Any advice or feedback for like if we’re just talking with our neighbors, to just gently ease us into those kinds of conversations?

COPAN: Yeah. I think it’s helpful for us as people to encounter crises to, say, ask them questions about, how do you handle those sorts of things? What really carries you through those tough times? I think it’s just good to ask those sorts of questions. I think even asking some fundamental questions about evil. So when the atheist neighbor will say, I can’t believe in a god who allows all this evil. I think it’s just a good to ask, well, what do you mean by evil? Because ultimately evil assumes a standard, a departure that there’s a departure from the way things ought to be. And so I think it’s just good to ask people questions about some of these assumptions or what they even mean by God. Some people have all sorts of false ideas about God.

You say, well, what do you mean by God? Define your understanding, and I think we can say, well, you know, you hold that view. You think that’s the view of God that you’re rejecting. Well, I reject that view too.

SMITH: Right. I’ve heard people say, you know, the God that you are describing, I don’t believe in that God either.

COPAN: Yeah, exactly. And so I think it’s just good to sometimes get to these basic definitions of God and evil and so forth, and I think sometimes ask those existential questions about, well, how do we cope with a troubled conscience? How do we cope with the sense of significance? Where do we get our sense of identity and so forth. And I think that just in our natural conversation, I think for one thing, our lives need to be those of integrity that people are drawn to, that people say, I want to be like that person.I want to be like that Christian. So are we, first of all, drawing people by God’s grace to the beauty of Jesus, to the beauty of the Gospel. And so we are in a sense that first stepping stone so that people, you know, we’re the fifth gospel by whom others can come and see the Jesus of the four gospels. And so I think that there’s a matter of how we live, how we interact, showing love in times of crisis and so forth, that there’s a holistic response that we offer to our neighbors as we engage with them. It’s not really at an intellectual level, but it’s a full body level. And I think just letting people know that we love them, that we like them and that God is interested in them too. And that by showing them our love that we could show that there’s a god who’s also interested in them.

SMITH: Paul, as I started this conversation, I mentioned that we’re here at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Denver. And you presented a paper that covered many of these ideas. Was there a key idea that you wanted to get across to them today? And if so, what is that?

COPAN: Well, I think it’s very important for us as we interact with people to, I think, fundamentally point them to the trustworthiness, the reliability of the Christian message, that it is something that can stand up to scrutiny and that the best intellectual minds can indeed appreciate the Christian faith and be attracted to it. I think of Michael Bird who is here at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting a New Testament scholar from Australia who talks about the critic, who Bart Ehrman who left the Christian faith and he said that Bart Ehrman’s narrative suggests that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to believe.

My life proves otherwise. I’ve got my own de-conversion story to match his. And so he just talks about how when he read about the Jesus in the gospels, he found that he was addressing the deep concerns that he felt. He felt that Jesus was the one who is speaking to these issues of injustice that his own atheism could not properly address, and he said that he actually became a free thinker by becoming a believer. He said, faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came to see a whole new world that for the first time actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny and so began a lifelong quest to know, study, and teach about the one whom Christians called Lord.

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