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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Norman Geisler's Review of John Loftus' Book

Dr. Norman L. Geisler was one of my heroes when I was a believer. One of the first classes that I took as a Bible college freshman was Bibliology. The textbook for that class was A General Introduction to the Bible (co-authored by William Nix). I literally cut my theological teeth on Geisler’s exposition of the doctrines of revelation, inspiration and inerrancy. I learned how an evangelical believer should think about the development of the canon and the transmission and translation of the Bible. When I became a Bible college professor myself, I used several of Geisler’s books in my classes. I used his Christian Apologetics as one of the required textbooks in Apologetics. I used his Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (co-authored by Paul Feinberg) and Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logic as assigned reading in my Philosophy classes. While, of course, I did not agree with everything he wrote, I had tremendous respect for his scholarship and the clarity in which he communicated. So, when I found out that he had done a critique of my fellow apostate John Loftus’ book , I could not wait to see what he said.

The review is entitled: FROM APOLOGIST TO ATHEIST: A CRITICAL REVIEW , Norman L. Geisler, Ph.D., Christian Apologetics Journal , Volume 6, No. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 93-109.

Geisler begins by throwing some kudos to John’s work. He states: “ … it is a thoughtful and intellectually challenging work, presenting arguments that every honest theist and Christian should face. Indeed, some of his criticisms are valid” (p. 94). The only example, though, of a valid criticism that Geisler mentions is John’s critique of William Craig’s “witness of the Holy Spirit” as a self-authenticating evidence of the truth of Christianity. To me its not surprising that Geisler mentions Craig since they are members of rival schools of apologetics. Its always good to throw a jab at one of your rivals. (I find it fascinating that Christian apologists cannot even agree on the best way to try to defend Christianity. There are multiple approaches each with their own devout followers. See Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Steven Cowan. At least one of these schools, the presuppositionalists, accuse the other schools of not really given honor to the Bible.) Nevertheless, Geisler does acknowledge that John’s work is “intellectually challenging.”

My biggest criticism of Geisler’s review is that he maintains that John left the faith because of sin and rebellion not because of genuine intellectual doubts. He says that it is noteworthy that John first step away from God involved moral failure and “Then, he began to doubt God’s word” (p. 97). I am not surprised that Geisler would have this view. Conservative Christians maintain that failure to believe in God is never due to the head but always to the heart. My former pastor used to say this and he would quote Psalms 14:1 to prove it. “The fool hath said in his heart (and by implication not his head), there is no God.” Bob Jones Sr. (who is revered at BJU in way something like Hindus revere their spiritual gurus) had a saying: “If a man will give God his heart, God will comb the kinks out of his head.” For the conservative evangelical Christian it is all about sin. They cannot believe that someone may have honest doubts about God and the Bible (at least not after they have been given all of the pat answers by the Christian apologist—at that stage its only rebellion).

I am also not surprised to see that Geisler actually questioned the genuineness of John’s conversion. He says: “ In summation, one can place question marks on both his ‘conversion’ and ‘deconversion.’ Given the legalistic context, one can question whether or not he really understood the grace of God” (p. 108). Those within my old theological camp (fundamental Baptists) did not believe that most Church of Christ people were truly saved. They thought that the Church of Christ folks (whom they called Campbellites) had added works to grace because of their insistence on baptism as a requirement for salvation. They also felt that the Church of Christ belief that one could lose one’s salvation actually meant that they denied salvation by grace to begin with. A Calvinistic Christian cannot accept the notion of a truly regenerate person falling away. Again to quote my former Pastor: “A faith that fizzles at the finish had a fatal flaw at the first.”

For this reason, Geisler does not give much credence to John’s arguments against Christianity. He says: “The discussion here need not be long for several reasons. First, his unbelief was not initiated by reason, as he admits. Rather, it was his rejection by friends and the lack of Christian love. Second, there is nothing really new here that has not already been answered elsewhere” (p. 100). This confirms what I said above. Many conservative Christians believe that they have all the answers to every question ever raised against the Christian faith. All one has to do is buy their book and presto, they will have all the answers too. If you disagree with their answers, its because of your sinful and rebellious heart.

Geisler maintains that John’s problem with Genesis and science can be answered by “high school level apologetics” (p. 100). While I am no scientist, I have read somewhat widely on evolution and “creation science” and I know that the subject is far more complex than Geisler is acknowledging. He believes that he has refuted evolution by stating: “Red, white, and blue confetti dropped from an airplane will never produce the American Flag on your lawn” (p. 100). Don’t we all wish that the matter was that simple?

The fact is that evolution, while not essentially at odds with conservative Christianity (see the gap theory, theistic evolution, and progressive creationism), is at odds with Geisler’s fundamentalist view of the Scripture. Thus, he seems ready to dismiss the whole subject with his simplistic example of dropping confetti from an airplane.

Geisler says that John’s best argument against God is the argument from evil; but he says it can be dismissed due to circular reasoning. “For how can one know God is ultimately in-just (sic )for allowing evil unless he knows what is ultimately just (sic). And how can he know there is an ultimate standard of justice (i.e., absolute moral law), unless there is an absolute Moral Law Giver” (p. 101)? Here again, it seems to me that Geisler is way too simplistic in dismissing the argument from evil. Common sense and observation tells you that there are many injustices in the world (not caused by man). Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and many other types of natural disasters kill and maim young children (not to mention adults) on almost a daily basis around the globe. Children contract cancer and other horrific diseases each day due to no fault of their own. Geisler’s answer to this dilemma is that we will understand one day that these things were really for the best. In the meanwhile, we have to just trust God. Frankly, that is also the teaching of the book of Job and consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture. Don’t be surprised, however, if those who do not have a prior commitment to the truth of Scripture find this argument unconvincing and unsatisfying.

In dealing with Loftus’ “Cumulative Argument” against Christianity, Geisler responds: “First, the atheist, weighs the specific evidence differently than the theist, and his bias affects the way he weighs it. What Loftus views as improbable (say, the resurrection of Christ) is because of his bias against miracles, not because there is not highly probably (sic) historical evidence that it happened, which there is” (p. 101). I have to guess that Geisler has a blind spot here. A man as intelligent as he is ought to recognize that he comes to the same evidence with bias. No one is truly objective. No one interprets any evidence outside of their particular world-view. Now you can argue whether or not the world-view is correct but you cannot operate outside of one in some type of imaginary neutral land. Geisler is just as biased in favor of the resurrection and miracles as Loftus is against them.

Geisler goes on to say: “If miracles are possible (which they are in a theistic universe), then their probability depends purely on the reliability of the documents. And the Gospel documents are reliable. In summary, there are more NT documents, earlier documents, more documents [doesn't this sound redundant-my comment] by more contemporaries and eyewitness testimony, more historically and archaeologically confirmed than for any other events of the ancient world. Hence, it is highly probable that Jesus did the miracles contained in the NT and rose from the dead to confirm his claim to be the Son of God” (pp. 101-102). To argue that the large number of ancient copies of the NT somehow guarantees that the miracles contained in those copies must be true is a huge jump in logic. Would the existence of a large number of copies of the Koran or the Book of Mormon or the Hindu Veda guarantee that the miracles described in those books were true? Geisler mentions archaeologically confirmed Scripture. Has archaeology ever confirmed that a miracle mentioned in the Bible actually took place? I am not aware of any such discovery. Archaeology may confirm some historical references in the Scriptures but that is a far cry from proving that the miracles took place.

Geisler tries to water down John’s claim that historical studies can never prove the Bible beyond a reasonable doubt by saying: “Probabilities leave room for some doubt but not necessarily always a reasonable doubt. And high probabilities do not leave room for any reasonable doubt, though there is always room for possible doubt in historical arguments” (p. 102) To me, this seems like mental gymnastics. Doubt is doubt and for some it will be reasonable doubt and for others it will not. Geisler seems to be assuming some imaginary objective arbiter here. John’s point was simply that historical evidence can never fully prove the Bible to be true and I think he is right.

Geisler continues: “It too can be a cumulative case where one probability is built upon another until the whole argument for Christianity is so highly probable that it is beyond all reasonable doubt” (p. 102). If that is the case, then the only thing keeping the whole world from converting is their lack of knowledge. If somehow, Geisler and his apologists could get their evidence in front of everyone, the whole world would believe (except for those who are willfully rebellious). Excuse me if I think this sounds a little bit arrogant.

Geisler takes John to task for saying that “ancient standards [for eyewitnesses] are pathetic in comparison to today’s standards.” Geisler replies: “This is simply false. Indeed, many legal experts have examined the New Testament eyewitness testimony and found it more than sufficient” (p. 102). Geisler’s “many legal experts” consists of a 19th century apologist-lawyer, Simon Greenleaf, and a 20th century theologian-lawyer, John Montgomery—this hardly constitutes “many legal experts.” The fact is that you can find a lawyer that will defend just about any known position. The testimony recorded in the Gospels is by and large second and third hand which would be dismissed in a court of law as hearsay. And that is ignoring the fact that the Gospel records were written decades after the events took place when memories have a tendency to fade and stories can be embellished. In any case, there is certainly no opportunity to cross examine the so-called eyewitnesses and that alone would nullify their testimony.

Geisler next calls John’s “God-of-the-gaps” argument faulty. Just because science is explaining more and more (leaving less room for God), there is no need for the Christian to worry, according to Geisler, because miracles by definition are irregular, non-repeatable events and as such can never be examined by empirical science. Thus, miracles such as the resurrection are safe from the prying eyes of science. Geisler goes on to argue that only forensic science can be used to test the unobserved and unrepeated events of the past. He writes: “Here one must depend on the principles of causality and uniformity. Events (even past ones) had a cause (causality). And the present is the key to the past (uniformity). Hence, the kind of causes that produce a certain kind of event in the present should be posited for these same kind of events in the past. Some of these events demand intelligent causes” (p. 103). Essentially, Geisler is presenting the cosmological and teleological arguments. While these arguments do have some weight in my opinion, they are far from certain. Whatever the case, what he says does not refute the fact that science has eliminated the need for supernatural explanations of cause and effect phenomena in a host of areas. Whereas people in biblical times had supernatural explanations for many natural phenomena (such as demon possession for epilepsy), most people today living in a post-Enlightenment world know that those explanations are not valid.

Geisler also criticizes John by saying: “… one of the weakest links in his case for atheism is his failure to provide any real positive evidence for God’s non-existence… "(p. 104). Here Geisler is guilty, in my opinion, of the classic fallacy of shifting the burden of proof. It is not the atheist’s responsibility to provide positive evidence against God. The burden of proof lies on the one who is making the assertion that God exists. It is the theist’s responsibility to provide positive evidence for God. The atheist’s only responsibility is to refute the theist’s positive evidence.

Geisler says that John’s “Outsider Test” is self-defeating. (A favorite term of Geisler’s I have noticed in reading his books over the years.) “. . . if one should have the presumption of skepticism toward any belief system, especially his own, then why should Loftus not have the presumption of skepticism toward his own atheistic beliefs? The truth is that the outsider test is self-defeating since by it every agnostic should be agnostic about his own agnosticism and every skeptic would be skeptical of his own skepticism” (p. 105). I fail to see the problem here. Yes, one should be skeptical of their own skepticism. They should try to see their world view as someone outside of their particular belief system would see it. They should read those from opposing world views and talk to people from different cultures and religions. By doing so, it will shed light on the true weaknesses of their particular system of thought (whether that system be evangelical Christianity or atheism).

Geisler believes that being skeptical of one’s views is somehow not a good thing. He says: “Advanced skepticism should only be used when one has advanced evidence or good reasons to disbelieve that the event really did not happen. Otherwise, one should come with an open mind to the question” (p. 107). Geisler seems to be arguing for assuming something to be true until its proven false whereas Loftus is saying to assume something to be false until its proven true. In my opinion, more advances in human thought and understanding are made by following the latter methodology. It seems to me that people are more naturally inclined to follow the first methodology and just believe what the people around them believe. It’s the ones who are willing to question the status quo that wind up making new discoveries and who find new ways to understand the world.

Finally, Geisler accuses John and all atheists of being biased. “The truth is that the only way the atheist or skeptic can even compete on the playing field of religious truth is to load the dice or stack the deck. Most often this is done by assuming either metaphysical or methodological naturalism” (p. 107). I guess evangelical Christians are the only ones who are truly unbiased. Does Geisler not recognize his own bias in favor of supernaturalism? I would agree with those of the competing school of apologetics known as presuppositionalism who maintain that the notion of neutrality is a myth (for example, see Greg Bahnsen). No one is completely objective. No one views the world free from any bias. It is impossible. The first step to achieving some level of objectivity is to recognize your own biases. Geisler does not seem to have done this.

All in all, I cannot say that I am surprised by Geisler’s critique. Knowing evangelical Christianity as I do, I could have almost written the essay for him. Evangelical Christians are certain about what they believe, often to the point of failing to recognize that when it is all said and done, it's still just a belief. They may be right and I may be wrong. I am willing to admit this and they are not. I don’t know if it’s the particular type of psyche that is drawn to dogmatic religion that explains this mentality or if there is some other explanation, but it seems to be common place among evangelicals.


  1. I agreed with Geisler in his analysis. I agreed that John's saw Christianity as an opportunity for power; however, he came to realize that Christianity was about service which was a major turn off for him. This lead to moral failure and his ultimate rejection of the Christian paradigm.

    John still has a huge desire for power as evidenced by his site where he is constantly craving for attention. He always wants to be in with the big wigs like Dawkins or debating Craig. He is not satisfied in simply converting folks to atheism quietly. He wants the name recognition that goes with it and the power to be able to command people similar to PZ Meyers. It really is all about pride which is of course why he fell into moral sin.

    Christianity is not about power as John falsely thought at the beginning; rather, Christianity is about selfless service which John is not interested in. I think this becomes pretty clear in John's own book about his life when he came to see that Christianity was not going to provide him the power that he desired.

    There is no rational reason to be an atheist. I have looked and looked. The only thing I have ever witnessed coming from atheists is anger, hate and basic rebellion against God and His witnesses. John is not an exception. His rejection was not intellectual; rather, it was moral which gave rise to his intellectual arguments.

    God Bless...

  2. Thank you for this review. Now I don't feel so bad. I've given up on having any conversation whenever the people I used to go to church with try to figure out why I'm no longer a Christian. All they do is ignore what I actually say and make stuff about about how I actually feel and why I actually left.

    I've pretty much come to the conclusion that it's because they simply cannot afford to allow words and thoughts that would ruin their limited apologetics to make it in. Those thoughts create doubt, and the whole system is held up on such a fragile scaffold that honest doubt cannot be allowed. This is, not surprisingly, the reason why my own decision to allow myself to honestly doubt ultimately caused me to discard my faith.

    Still, I've wondered if I was getting too cocky about such things. It was so easy to see the superficial arguments and reject them. It was so extremely simple to realize that the apologetics that were supposed to be slam-dunk were actually completely useless in the face of logic and actual knowledge of things like science and history that I was wondering if perhaps I just wasn't dealing with the right apologists.

    Seems to me that if Norman Geisler can't come up with anything better than I've yet heard then I really am in the clear.

    For that matter, I'm probably a better apologist than most anyone on the Christian side. The tough questions I asked myself during my process of discarding religion took me to places that the limited theology I'd previously been allowed to believe simply could not let me go. And even then it all came down to, "There's no proof of this and 'faith' can't be the final arbiter of something that's unknown and unknowable." I could have faith that there are unicorns on a planet circling the star Alpha Centuri, but there's no way of knowing. And that, therefore not something I should really consider as my ultimate concern.

  3. ZDENNY, I am so glad you know exactly what John Loftus and every atheist in the world is thinking and acts like.

    Arrogance - offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.

    P.S. - PZ's last name is spelled Myers, that is only one e.

  4. Ken, did you know that Geisler's review is now online? People can see for themselves. Keep in mind this was a review of my formerly self-published book which has been discontinued.

  5. John,

    Thanks for the link and the reminder that this was an earlier edition of your book.

  6. I'm pretty sure Geisler has a bias against miracles, too -- all miracles outside his own faith tradition. It's safe to say that when evangelicals hear of Catholic miracles from the middle ages, they assume out of hand that they didn't happen.

  7. Perhaps Geisler doesn't understand that being skeptical is being open-minded. The skeptic says, "show me sufficient evidence, and I will accept your claim - but until you do, I will question it."

  8. Steve,

    You are right. All of the miracle claims outside of "true Christianity" is either dismissed as a hoax or as a work of Satan.

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  10. Evangelicals talk a lot about Satan. Which makes me wonder if any of them have ever read the Bible?

    I mean, he's in there a few times, but his actions are vague and nebulous, and never all that evil. His confrontation with Christ is anti-climatic, "Here Jew, have some bread on the Sabbath!" Ooooh... dastardly. Telling Jesus to take a flying leap off the nearest tall building is a little less forgivable, but it seems more anti-Semitic than prince of darkness and king of lies and all that bad rep. But that’s less evil that say, Judas’ betrayal of Christ, and I’m not even sure Judas was a real historical figure anyway.

    And the whole Satan was the snake in the Garden of Eden thing is pure conjecture. They amalgamate a verse in Revelation which describes Satan as serpentine to give credence to that assumption, neglecting the whole historical symbolism of a seven headed dragon an allegory Rome, not Satan.

    But a NT book written in (most likely the 2nd century), and an ancient Jewish fable stemming from Persian roots with hints of Greek enlightenment symbolism, are two totally different things... to conflate the two is to get it wrong on purpose. Especially since the Christian agenda has always been to make Satan into a scapegoat and distort his character every chance they get. Not that he was a great role model or anything, but definitely less evil than the Abrahamic God of the OT.

    The other notions of Satan many Christians hold are derived from apocryphal books and Gnostic sources, and are combinations of other characters. Biblical scholar Robert M. Price gives a great summary of Satan’s crude amalgamation in his book “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.” It seems that in order to have a villain in Christianity, something the Christian story was lacking, Christians have had to cannibalize various elements of sinister characters and themes, and all this imaginative tinkering has birthed today’s Satan. But this is even better proof that Satan is strictly a figment of Christians’ imaginations.

    So there isn't really a tangible figure at all... just a scapegoat to blame the entire world’s evils on instead of having to actually take responsibility for one's behavior. The belief in Satan is rather pathetic and sad really. It’s another excuse for the Christian ego to suppress anything it deems as offensive, because they disagree with it (therefore evil) and allows them to ignore anything which should seek to fracture their faith, or happen to be too intellectual challenging. Anything viewed to be heretical by Christians can simply be passed off as a ploy of Satan’s to bamboozle you to the dark side. Again, they can close their minds to reason if they (arbitrarily) decide it seems not in tune with their Christian convictions and aspirations (whatever those may turn out to be at the time). It’s all just one big headache if you ask me.

  11. "an ancient Jewish fable stemming from Persian roots with hints of Greek enlightenment symbolism"

    I think Genesis 3 is older than that, since the Gilgamesh epic has a snake snatching eternal life from Gilgamesh. But it's interesting to see other proposed dates for it.

  12. James:

    Yes, I am aware of the Gilgamesh similarities. In fact, Buddhism also has tree-hugging snakes and guardians of knowledge a full 1,000 years prior to Genesis. The story could have originated many different places all at once and come together to form the rudimentary Jewish fable, or else, was a borrowing of several different myths.

    By my estimate, they must have picked it up during their Persian exile, but the Greek enlightenment symbolism of 'golden fruit' which contains 'unlimited knowledge' seems to be ripe for the picking.

    That said, it may have other trace elements stemming from a variety of ancient myths. I'm still currently doing research on talking snakes, so I'll probably have a better grasp of things in a year or so.