As a high school student, I once witnessed a disturbing conversation between a brilliant atheistic student and a Christian student regarding the existence of dinosaurs. My ears perked up as I heard the Christian student adamantly state, “I don’t believe that dinosaurs ever existed because they are not in the Bible.” The atheist student inquired, “How do you explain the fossils of dinosaurs?” The Christian retorted, “They must be a hoax.” At this point, I jumped into the conversation to explain Christians do not deny the fossil evidence or existence of dinosaurs and the Bible even describes dinosaurs (see Job 40:15; 41:1).
While I can appreciate the unwavering faith the young Christian placed in the Bible, I wish he had known the Proverb “he who restrains his lips is wise.”1 Examples of Christians refusing to believe scientific claims or relying on blind faith–to the neglect of critical thinking–are unfortunately not uncommon. This tendency is not without historic precedence.
While there are, and have always been, brilliant philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and theologians who were Christians, it is historically undeniable that there was a time when the light of logic grew dim, ushering in what has been referred to as the Dark Ages.
After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, a new centralized version of Christianity emerged from the past three centuries of an organic and decentralized movement of churches. In the book The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman asserts that by the fifth century, Christianity began to have a restricting influence on the advancement of science and reason.
Among the primary reasons for Christianity’s attack on reason, Freeman points to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. “It had been the Apostle Paul who declared war on the Greek rational tradition through his attacks on ‘the wisdom of the wise’ and ‘the empty logic of the philosophers,’ words which were to be quoted and requoted in the centuries to come.”2 While Paul’s words may have served the purposes of the church leaders who sought to stifle ideas that threatened their control, Paul’s life and writings display a different story.
Paul’s Time in Athens
In preparation for an upcoming trip to Athens, Greece, I was recently studying Google maps to gain an understanding of how to best navigate and explore many ancient sites of this great city. One of the first sites I looked for was Aereopagus Hill where Paul addressed some of the leading thinkers of Athens (Acts 17:22-34). Exploring the online map, I realized Aereopagus is a four-minute walk to the Parthenon, a fifteen-minute walk to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and a twenty-five-minute trek from the site where Aristotle taught.
“Now while Paul was waiting for them [Timothy and Silas] at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.” (Acts 17:16-18) 3The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Acts 17:16-19
It is fascinating to consider Paul wandering through the city of Athens. According to the account of Luke, Paul walked through Athens observing the idols (the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology) housed in the great Parthenon and other religious temples. Paul also “reasoned” with religious leaders in the synagogue, Athenians in the marketplace, and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
Aristotle vs. Plato
Similar to Western cities today, Athens was a pluralistic city with many competing beliefs tied to multiple religions and contrasting philosophies. Those who valued reason and logic over religious faith were far from unified. Among them were Stoics, Epicureans, Aristotelians, Platonists, and more.
Raphael’s famous painting The School of Athens depicts Aristotle and Plato surrounded by other philosophers. In contrasting postures, Plato is pointing to the heavens and Aristotle is pointing to the earth. “For Aristotle certainty has to be found in this world through the painstaking accumulation of empirical evidence and reasoned deduction from it. …Plato, by contrast, rejects the world of the senses altogether. It holds no real value in comparison to the immaterial world of the Forms, where truth alone resides.”4
While in Athens, Paul stood on Aeropagus hill, which was used for public hearings both judicial and civil, and addressed a group of Athenian leaders. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”5
Rather than attacking their religions or their logic, Paul uses them both as a springboard to present an alternative belief. His starting point is their religious acknowledgment of the possibility of a god they have not yet discovered. Paul goes on to quote one of their philosophers, “In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.”6
In Romans 1:19-20, Paul argues that God’s existence is visible to all who are willing to acknowledge it, through the use of logic, reason, and observation. From the Greek philosophers to the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and modern evolutionary theory, scientists are still at a loss for explaining a “first cause.” The blind faith necessary for atheists to believe the universe came from nothing can hardly be seen as grounded in logic.
Paul’s life had been so deeply changed through meeting the crucified Christ, who had been raised from the dead, that he risked everything to share the news. Traditional religious views and logic could serve as a starting point, but the good news Paul was proclaiming transcended them.
Tom Holland gives insight into Paul’s mission: “If Paul could not leave the sheer wonder of this alone, if he risked everything to proclaim it to strangers likely to find it disgusting, or lunatic, or both, then that was because he had been brought by his vision of the risen Jesus to gaze directly into what it meant for him and for all the world.”7
The Logic of Faith
In examining Paul’s teaching, it is clear that Paul was not condemning the use of logic, however, he cautioned the accuracy of, and the reliance, on human reasoning alone. The belief that the world is broken and people have limited knowledge and perceptions influenced by bias is not unique to Paul. Nonetheless, logic may be limited but it is still useful.
The Christian belief is rooted in a God who has revealed Himself to His creation. God has made Himself knowable. The Prophet Isaiah appealed, “Come let us reason together.”8 There is a section of the Old Testament known as the “wisdom literature,” which contains a book of wise proverbs. Additionally, there is the book of Ecclesiastes that helps make sense of this world and is unable to fully satisfy. Ecclesiastes is full of observations that appeal to one’s reason and logic.
One of the first followers of Jesus and an eye-witness to his life, ministry, death, and resurrection was a man named John. As John begins his account of Jesus’s life he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Unique to Christianity, we find Jesus described as the Logos (Word) of God. Jesus is presented as the “logic” of God with flesh on.
Peter called Christians to always be ready to “reason” with people who want to understand the source of their hope. Instructing them to always be “…prepared to make a defense [apologia– (apo-against) (logia-word, answer)] to anyone who asks you for a reason[logon-a communication whereby the mind finds expression, word] for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience…”10
Reasoning with Gentleness and Respect
The world today, like the ancient city of Athens, is full of many competing religious and philosophical beliefs. It is unreasonable and unkind to demand that everyone keep their beliefs silent. If a person is on a path that will cause him or her harm or harm to others, it is unloving to not warn that person. If one has beliefs that are untested or false, it is unloving to leave that individual in the dark.
A society built on tolerance must allow space for divergent beliefs. As Peter encouraged the early Christians, to be ready to reason, but with gentleness and respect.
I have found that evidence of the Christian faith to be logically compelling. My faith is not blind but is based upon a reasoned understanding of the historical reliability of the Bible. You may weigh the evidence and come to another conclusion. However, refusing to consider the historical evidence of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is as unreasonable as refusing to believe that dinosaurs once existed.
1 New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Proverbs 10:19.
2 Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, (New York: Vintage, 2005). xviii.
3 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Acts 17:16-19.
4 Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, 34.
5 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Acts 17:22-23.
6 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Acts 17:28.
7 Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, First US edition (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 87.
8 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Isaiah 1:18.
9 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 599.
10 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 1 Peter 3:15–16.