Is Christianity unbelievable?
Review of a book by influential UK Christian radio show host
Published: 9 April 2019 (GMT+10)
The book Unbelievable? (subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists I’m still a Christian) bears the same name as the popular apologetics radio show, hosted by Justin Brierley on Premier Christian Radio (UK).1 Unbelievable the radio show has been airing since 2007 and has grown in popularity over the last few years. Brierley has become known for his skill at impartial moderating during even the most provocative debates.
The show seeks to bring together people of different perspectives to have conversation about what they believe. Usually the format is a Christian versus an atheist, but the show also features ‘in-house’ debates between differing Christian positions. It has featured many of the world’s top atheists; Peter Atkins, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Bart Erhman to name a few. The back catalogue of Christian guests from around the world is also impressive, including such scholars as N.T. Wright, Peter J Williams and John Lennox.
In defence of Christianity
This book is not an in-depth apologetics text, so the reader should not expect any novel arguments or ground-breaking rebuttals. In fairness the author would not claim to offer any such thing. Instead the purpose of the book is:
“to explain why, after years of hearing the strongest objections to the faith from scholars, sceptics and atheists, I still believe in the claims of Christianity.” (p. 143)
In answering this question, the author draws upon many of the conversations with guests on Unbelievable whom he has hosted over the years. These real life discussions provide a pleasant and novel element to an apologetics book. It will appeal particularly to those who are regular listeners of the show and have probably wondered where the author stands on the debates he moderates. In this book Justin Brierley removes his ‘impartial moderator’ hat and throws it into the ring.
Unbelievable? commences with chapters on why God makes sense of human existence, value and purpose. These are followed by chapters on the historical Jesus and the resurrection. A whole chapter is dedicated to the problem of evil, and Justin’s short interaction with Richard Dawkins gets its own chapter. The final chapter is an exhortation “to live the Christian story of reality”.
There is much to be commended in this book. Its part narrative, part argument structure makes for an enjoyable read, which succeeds in keeping the reader engaged with the book’s overall flow. It is entertaining to see which people presented him with the most challenging arguments and to hear first-hand how they were answered on the show. I particularly enjoyed the discussion with Derren Brown,2 the renowned UK illusionist, who has become famous for his use of illusion, hypnosis and trickery, even appearing to make people believe in miracles and the existence of God. As Brierley recounts the discussion he had with Brown about the resurrection, it is clear that Brown does not consider it to be an elaborate illusion, like something he would perform, rather he simply discounts the source documents as unreliable. Brierley does well in pushing back with the more recent historical research that has been done since Brown ‘investigated’ the resurrection himself. This real-life caveat leads nicely into a discussion on the resurrection and the book does a good job of explaining the ‘minimal facts’ approach championed by Christian scholars such as professor Gary Habermas.3
The chapter “God Makes Sense of Human Value” was a good defence of human dignity. The author makes good use of the ‘moral argument’, arguing from objective morality to God. Brierley says that this is “one of my personal favourites” (p. 53) and demonstrates that he has spent time thinking about these issues and debating them on the show. Ultimately, he says, “we have the value of our Maker imprinted on us… Genesis 1:27 affirms that God created humans ‘in His own image’” (p. 53).
The chapter titled “My Ten Minutes with Richard Dawkins” was also a highlight of the book. It tells the story of how the author snared “the biggest catch” (p. 168), a conversation with Richard Dawkins. During this small interaction the author succeeds in backing Dawkins into a corner when he can’t really account for the basis of his moral belief that rape is wrong. As Dawkins argues, his moral intuitions are simply the result of the biological process and social progression over time. Therefore, his belief that rape is wrong is entirely arbitrary. This short dialogue has been picked up by many commentators, most recently, as Brierley points out (p. 171), by Alister McGrath in his book Mere Apologetics.4
If Unbelievable was to be stripped of all the anecdotes from the radio show, it would follow the well-known apologetic formula of presenting a cumulative case for God—firstly, offering the cosmological argument, then moving to the teleological argument and ending the broad case for theism with the moral argument.5 After making this broad case, more specific evidences for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are offered. While I have no issue with following this pattern—it can be an effective way to select and arrange the data—there were several issues that jumped out during the book.
(i) Billions of years
Following the lead of many Christian apologists, Justin Brierley clearly favours the ‘old-earth’ position on Creation. Although the topic doesn’t explicitly feature in the book, there is enough to collate an opinion as to where his sensibilities lie. Early on he says that the discussions on the show “were certainly useful for working out where I stood on important issues of Christian doctrine such as creation and evolution” (p. 7). A little later he states, “That is not to say my faith has remained unaffected … numerous beliefs have been refined … my understanding of creation and evolution” (p. 20).
In chapter two, “God makes sense of Human existence”, the author uses the cosmological and teleological arguments to argue that God is the best explanation for why the universe and life is here at all. As he interacts with the scientific data for the beginning of the universe, he frequently quotes Christian scientists associated with the organisation Reasons to Believe, which is well known for its ‘progressive creationism’ teaching. A little later it is argued that big bang cosmology is one of the ways science has opened up the God question. Then, when discussing the probabilities involved in the Fine-Tuning argument, he makes this overt admission: “our universe has only been around for a relatively paltry 14 billion years” (p. 38).6
(ii) Big bang
It is clear from these admissions that Brierley sees God as the best explanation for the birth of the universe, but from a big bang. However, Christian apologists who wholeheartedly accept the big bang paradigm, and use it as a scientific evidence for the Christian faith, often miss the problems it creates for the larger biblical narrative. Even if we ignore the fact that the big bang theory is given as a secular hypothesis to explain the universe without God, there are many more theological problems with accepting it. Whilst some believe that the big bang model is compatible with the Bible, the fact that the universe had a beginning is the only area of agreement.
There are 23 demonstrable sequential differences between big bang cosmology and the Genesis creation account; there are significant scientific problems with big bang as well.7 Also, although many Christians who believe the big bang (and stellar evolution) still argue against biological evolution, they do not have a problem accepting geological evolution—and one wonders why, seeing that they already argue that the entire creation narrative is not to be taken as written.
(iii) Sin and death
Accepting the conventional secular timescale means that they must place millions of years of death, bloodshed, and disease before the Fall of Adam and Eve. To say the least, this seriously blunts the typical apologist response that these things are a result of the Fall (I have previously interacted with this on the show). This problem surfaces in chapter seven, “The Atheist’s Greatest Objection: Suffering,” when the author attempts to answer the question of why God allowed death, disease and natural disasters to exist at all. He states:
“The Christian story is that the whole created order is in some sense ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level. Some theologians trace this to human rebellion – an outworking of ‘the fall’ which acts both forwards and backwards in time. Others point to the existence of an earlier rebellion in the angelic realm that sparked a ‘cosmic fall’” (p. 154).
However, such justifications are misleading. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of theologians throughout history have attributed natural evils to the Fall because this is clearly what the Bible teaches when examined without long-age presuppositions. Secondly, the concept of a Fall that can be applied retro-actively in time is a very new idea, proposed in order to correct the apparent contradiction that death before sin causes; it has never received wide acceptance. Finally, although theologians may talk of a satanic fall, nowhere does the Bible give this as the reason for death and suffering entering the earth.
(iv) Eternal punishment?
One other area where the author says his views have been revised is his understanding of hell. Departing from the traditional view of hell as an eternal reality after death Brierley explains that his present understanding “is one that theologians call ‘annihilationism’” (p. 184)—a view that basically says hell is the end of existence for the unsaved. Although he states that “there are a growing number of significant Christian leaders” who hold this view, it is a frank denial of the plain teaching of the New Testament, not least the Lord Jesus Himself (see Why would a loving God send people to Hell?). Consequently, it is still considered to be an unorthodox view in today’s Church, held only by a minority of professing evangelical leaders.
Despite the serious concerns discussed in this review, which I believe do have serious ramifications, there is still plenty to enjoy and benefit from in this book, particularly as it deals with the broader arguments from classical apologetics. As mentioned, it will be of special interest to regular listeners of the show, although it will undoubtedly reach a much wider audience. It provides an interesting history of the origins of the Unbelievable show and it does do what it set out to do: to answer the question, how after ten years of talking with atheists, Justin Brierley is still a professing Christian.
References and notes
- Brierley, J., Unbelievable? Why after ten years of talking with atheists I’m still a Christian, SPCK, London, 2017. Return to text.
- Hailes, S., Derren Brown reveals 'faith healing' trick, premier.org.uk, 23 August 2016; accessed 15 March 2019. Return to text.
- Habermas is an American New Testament scholar and historian, currently Distinguished Research Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy at Liberty University, Lynchburg. Return to text.
- McGrath, A.E., Mere Apologetics: How to help seekers & skeptics find faith, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2012. Return to text.
- See: What is classical apologetics? gotquestions.org; accessed 15 March 2019; also Doyle, S., Philosophical arguments for God, creation.com/arguments-for-god, 9 August 2016. Return to text.
- See also: Statham, D., A naturalist’s nightmare (A review of: A Fortunate Universe: Life in a finely tuned cosmos, by Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes), Journal of Creation 32(1):48–52, April 2018. Return to text.
- Williams, A. & Hartnett, J., Dismantling the Big Bang: God’s Universe Rediscovered, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, USA, 2005. Return to text.