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A compromised defence of Christianity

Review of Confronting Christianity: 12 hard questions for the world’s largest religion by Rebecca McLaughlin
Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2019

Reviewed by

Published: 2 March 2021 (GMT+10)

Introduction

confronting-christianity

In spite of the cryptic title of the book, the subject of this review is a 238-page apologetic for the Christian faith. It targets an audience of unbelievers who have tough challenges, and new believers of the Christian faith who are looking for answers to such confronting questions.

Rebecca McLaughlin has a PhD in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge and a theology degree from Oak Hill College (London). She is a regular contributor to Tim Keller’s The Gospel Coalition. Together with Denis Alexander, Dennis Venema, and John Walton (among others) she is listed on the BioLogos Advisory Council. McLaughlin served for years as content editor for The Veritas Forum, which features such names as N.T. Wright, Steven Pinker, John Lennox, and many more. According to the bio on her webpage, she has “one husband, three kids, and enough close friends to sustain her … heart!”1

“This chapter may be the most controversial yet”, McLaughlin quips in chapter nine, on homosexuality.2 There is certainly no controversy in the first few chapters, which cover an irreligious world, morality, and Christianity’s claim to being the only true faith. She has a good handle on distinguishing between some of the major religions when it comes to Jesus’ death (p. 54):

  1. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead
  2. Muslims believe that Jesus did not die
  3. Jews (at least those who follow modern Judaism, and atheists and agnostics, for that matter) believe that Jesus died and remained dead

My favourite chapter (two) is about Christianity’s global diversity, as opposed to it merely being a western religion. Later chapters include such topics as science, women (discussed later), and slavery.

Disagreements over origins

Rebecca-McLaughlin

There is no surprise about which parts of the book involve disagreements, controversy even. It is those about the acceptance of evolution, big bang cosmogony, and the age of the earth.3 The good material in this book is unfortunately seriously marred by McLaughlin’s view on origins. For instance, she waxes lyrical about evolutionary altruism, ending that section with:

“Far from undermining the possibility of a loving Creator, the glimmerings of a moral instinct in our biological past fit well with belief in a God who wants us to love as he loves” (p. 73).

The biological past refers to the period of evolving morality. Yet, at the same time, she acknowledges that, “the fact that death, suffering, and accidental circumstances are baked into the evolutionary story, has been used by atheists to argue that humans are not in any meaningful sense ‘designed’ or intended by God” (p. 124). The atheists—in this sense—are quite right, but theistic evolutionists either cannot or, more likely, will not see it. As CMI has pointed out on numerous occasions, “death, suffering, and accidental circumstances” really doesn’t sound like “a loving Creator”. More on this shortly.

McLaughlin also errs on the topic of cosmogony:

“Far from being yet another pointer toward atheism, the big bang is intriguingly congruent with the core Christian belief that God created the universe out of nothing” (p. 116).

CMI has written many times on how the big bang is not compatible with biblical teaching.

Mangled theology

McLaughlin really tries hard in Confronting Christianity to marry secular thinking with Scripture, but there is a price to pay. This is further evidenced by her dreadful claim that:

“the God of the Bible … spreads his story out over thousands, even millions, of years and weaves in all the mess of human history … at the center of history, he stakes the cross of his beloved Son” (p. 204, emphasis added).

The introduction of millions of years (as well as big bang and evolution) is really a massive blind spot (p. 187) in her belief. She quotes Richard Dawkins’ statement about the “pitiless indifference” of the universe in which we live, “combined with the impersonal forces that have forged our bodies through suffering, violence, and death” (p. 193). Yet, she cannot (will not?) see the sheer inconsistency of this evolutionary thinking with the Apostle Paul’s teaching about creation showing the attributes of God (Romans 1:20).

What’s more, she even contradicts herself by saying, quite rightly, “The beginning of the Bible paints a picture of Paradise: human beings in relationship with God and with each other, unstained by sin or suffering or death” (p. 205, emphasis added). If Adam and Eve descended from soulless hominids, which endorsing evolution entails, then they were not supernaturally created as the Bible teaches; their parents died, and theirs before them, stretching back into deep time.

The author believes that, “those who take a purely literal approach to Genesis 1–3 are still left with puzzles within the text” (p. 100). This follows immediately after she herself has tried to analyse Genesis 2:17, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”. She offers three distinct interpretations (p. 100):

  1. God spoke only of spiritual death.
  2. God did not mean literally the same day for physical death to occur.
  3. God lied or changed His mind, which she admits is biblically untenable.

McLaughlin obviously believes that, unless regenerated by the Holy Spirit, people are spiritually dead—and that certainly stems from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God’s command in Genesis 2:17. However, all people know that humans will die physically (as the Bible confirms in Hebrews 9:27); the exception being believers who are alive at Christ’s second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17). Death for Adam and Eve was both spiritual and physical.4

Anecdotes and testimonies

McLaughlin’s use of anecdotes on numerous occasions gives a fresh take on familiar themes. One notable instance is a graduate friend who became a convert by listening to a lecture by humanist and bioethicist Peter Singer. In the chapter titled “Doesn’t religion hinder morality?” she aptly demonstrates what deplorable depths atheism leads to if followed through consistently—nihilism, the doctrine that nothing actually exists or that existence or values are meaningless.5 Fortunately, many (most?) atheists don’t follow the logical consequences of their worldview this far. McLaughlin also describes how one of her Cambridge colleagues, “discovered that the longing for justice that had drawn her to ‘radical, leftist ideologies’ was ultimately more satisfied by the radical message of Jesus” (p. 67).

Women, abortion, and society

A common objection raised to Christianity these days is the peculiar notion that it allegedly denigrates women (chapter 8). Quite the opposite is true: “the Bible’s words on women are the words of a man who lays down his life … for the billions of women who have trusted him with theirs” (p. 152). She hastens to point out that not all reports in the Bible—meaning the bad stuff—are a prescription, rather a diagnosis. “No one who uses the Bible’s teaching on marriage to justify chauvinism, abuse, or denigration of women has looked at Jesus” (p. 143, emphasis added).

When discussing women in the Gospels (p. 136ff)—particularly Luke—McLaughlin on more than one occasion points to the significance of their being elevated, when it is unwarranted from the text and where clearly there are other issues (including those of the heart) at play. For instance, a synagogue leader’s objection to Jesus healing a woman with a disabling spirit was that he healed her on the Sabbath, not because she was a woman (Luke 13:10–17). Another example is when Jesus commended the poor widow’s coppers over the larger gifts by others (Luke 21:1–4). Her being a woman was irrelevant to the status of her heart and the faith she exhibited by giving her all, not simply a surplus. 1 Samuel 16:7b comes to mind:

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Women are equally as valuable to Jesus as men are, and likewise they are bearers of God’s image.

Similarly, children are endowed with that same divine image, even in the womb. During a silent pro-life rally in London, McLaughlin heard protesters shout, “Pro-life? That’s a lie! You don’t care if women die!” (p. 149). McLaughlin says she does care and writes:

“I think the ‘blame’ for abortion lies primarily not at the feet of women who make that choice in desperate circumstances but rather at the feet of all of us who are part of a society that separates sex from commitment, creates an ecosystem of unplanned pregnancy, and fails to support women who find themselves in that situation” (p. 150)

McLaughlin accepts that those choosing to live a promiscuous life are responsible for unwanted pregnancies, but she does challenge us to consider our behaviour in response to those who are hurting. Rather than ostracising someone who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, or someone who has gone through an abortion (which consigns them to the loneliness of isolation), she believes we should instead rally around them and provide assistance: “while the first Christians faced every kind of suffering, even being stoned to death, there was one struggle they did not face: loneliness” (p. 160). It is a point well made, and an eye-opener in other aspects of relationships too; these days, society seems to revolve more and more around (anti-)social media instead of true fellowship.

Gospel appeal

At the end of the book (p. 223) McLaughlin urges readers to come to Jesus. Although she has acknowledged sin throughout the book, strangely she does not mention it in this context. Earlier, she states that we should “put our trust in him” (p. 217). However, it’s unfortunate that McLaughlin fails to explain how a person comes to Christ. Trusting in Jesus must be accompanied by confession of sin, and a belief in his resurrection (Romans 10:9). After all, we trust Jesus when he calls “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Jesus informs us twice in the opening verses of Luke 13, that unless we repent, we will perish.

Conclusions

Disappointingly, the author of Confronting Christianity has confused ideas about the age of the Earth, big bang, and evolution. Some other unfortunate statements, not all mentioned in this review, mean this book falls significantly short of its potential. Its intriguing cover and title will definitely raise curiosity, and there certainly are people who could benefit from this book. But non-believers who confront Christians with questions about origins are more likely to be stumbled by McLaughlin’s compromised answers, than helped towards Christian faith. Despite the book’s shortcomings, even Christians may find some food for thought in its pages.

References and notes

  1. McLaughlin, R., A bit about me, rebeccamclaughlin.org; accessed 29 January 2021. Return to text.
  2. Spoiler alert: it is not. McLaughlin affirms marriage is between one man and one woman and sexual intimacy is restricted to that covenantal heterosexual relationship. See: Homosexual behaviour v the Bible. Return to text.
  3. Such disagreements are not confined solely to the chapter on science. Return to text.
  4. See chapter 8 of: Bell, P., Evolution and the Christian Faith: Theistic Evolution in the Light of Scripture, Day One Publications, pp. 170–193, 2018. Return to text.
  5. ‘Nihilism’, American Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, thefreedictonary.com; accessed 12 January 2021. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Nicholas S.
The world is always waiting for a story/reference they can interpret in their endeavour to water down the Authority of God and His Creation, for the world to have a justification for not having to justify themselves with God. Throwing in millions of 'evolution' years gives the hook/loophole for those who, not having dealt with sin, inadequacies and facing the need for change, to then do away with accountability to God. Undermining God's Creation Authority is the foreseeable outcome that evolution abstract theory has been trying to accomplish, as we know, for the last few centuries. As Christians, we cannot afford to give any credence to 'big bang' theory in the name of evolution, as our very Salvation depends on God's Limitless and Unmatched Power, Ephesians 1:17-23, specifically Ephesians 1:19-21. So why does an author entertain evolution, as this abstract theory has only been given a pseudo authority by the adversary? Why give him a foothold? How difficult would it have been for the author to have readily included the Gospel of Salvation (e.g. as per Lucien's account and Bible references) especially as the book appears to be initially aimed at unbelievers and supposedly clarifying any questions they may have about Christianity? Is it that costly to add a few more sentences and references to respective Bible Chapters and Verses? Apparently there is some hidden cost, in the context of this book, but the cost to the unbeliever is immeasurable and Eternally life changing. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil existed, the fruit of which was and is death. Trusting in God with the Tree of Life then, and now through Salvation, we choose life forevermore. The Fulfilment, Philippians 3:20-21. Thank you Lucien and CMI for again revealing the Truth of God's Word, John 8:32.
Douglas W.
We can all learn from helpful critiques, and perhaps a second edition might arrive. Church Society - Ros Clarke, has a fine transatlantic interview with Rebecca in the form of a podcast on their website.
Tim L.
You say, "Fortunately, many (most?) atheists don’t follow the logical consequences of their worldview this far." I agree that most fortunately don't follow the logical consequences of their worldview as far as they could, but I would say that the vast majority of them do follow them to an extraordinarily destructive end. Namely, the vast majority of atheists are 100% supportive of continuing (and even increasing) the murder of unborn babies. Therefore, it is clear that these people are not just nice people who build their morality on a worldview they reject, but rather they are people who believe, support, and do desperately evil things. I'm not sure why many Christians are unwilling to say such things. For some, it may be because they think that saying so means that person can't be reached with the Gospel or that unbelievers will be turned off by our willingness to identify evil, or that if we call a person evil then we have to treat them like we would a mass murderer. I'm not saying that's true of CMI (certainly, CMI has published many articles calling out all manner of evils in the culture), but I think it is true of many Christians. On the contrary, I think it opens our eyes to the desperate need of the world for the Gospel.
Lucien Tuinstra
I am currently working on an article on DIY abortion.
David G.
The great split in her world view is that in Genesis 1, the creation account, God shows that he is active, present and engaged in our world: the world he made for us in the same terms in which we experience it. The world view of evolution, like all pagan views, resolutely breaks any connection between God and his creature: both in historical dislocation and ontological disconnection, and by using stories that aren't true, on their view, in the forlorn attempt to teach us about the reality of God's relation to his creatures by telling us something other than what really happened. Her view is a mound of vacuous conjuring as only what happened in reality is of any significance. If God cannot tell us (which is their view) then it is something else that is real and it is this something else that sets the basis of our relationship with God...evolution? I don't think so.
David S.
If we have sincerely accepted Christ as our personal Saviour, our starting point for truth is in the Holy Scriptures. For many of us however, the successes and achievements of empirical science has blinded us. Science, in all its forms which include non empirical sciences like historical science, scientific materialism etc., have made us believe science in all its forms as the starting point for truth when science should really be just one of the many tools we use in our endeavours in our search for truth. Dr. Rebecca McLaughlin, I believe, unfortunately belongs in this category with regard to our origins.
Ken B.
Early in the article you mention the author's involvement with BioLogos and Veritas. Straight away one can see where this is headed, to rejection of the clear teaching of the Bible on creation.

In the section on women, you referred to the poor widow in Luke 21:1-4 'Her being a woman was irrelevant to the status of her heart and the faith she exhibited by giving her all, not simply a surplus'.

Can I offer some other comments regarding this section of scripture?

Throughout the Old Testament Israel as a nation was instructed to care for the widows. eg Deuteronomy 14:28,29 “At the end of every three years, bring a tenth of all your produce for that year and store it within your gates. Then the Levite, who has no portion or inheritance among you, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow within your gates may come, eat, and be satisfied. And the Lord your God will bless you in all the work of your hands that you do".

There should have been no destitute widows in Israel.

H.D.M Spence has observed that, "As far as we know, Jesus' comment upon the widow's alms was his last word of public teaching." These words are immediately followed in Luke 21 by the prophecy concerning the impending destruction of the Temple. It was as if Jesus mentioned the poverty of the widow as His final submission of evidence in condemning unfaithful Israel.

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