A Critique of Norman L. Geisler’s Review of John Loftus’ FROM APOLOGIST TO ATHEIST

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.

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To read John's review of Geisler's review see here.

8 comments:

Steven Carr said...

I though Geisler was supposed to be good.

This is the same garbage as always.

If Geisler had been born in Karachi, he would be saying the same stuff about Islam.

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks FF. I agree.

Let me make three comments. First, if Geisler demands that I present positive evidence that God doesn't exist, then maybe he can provide positive evidence that Zeus or Apollo do not exist.

Second, I had written seven pages where I dealt with eight different theories to harmonize the Genesis creation accounts with the age of the universe. In that discussion made reference to several scholarly works debunking all of them and supporting the view they are merely folk tales. There is nothing "High School" about what I wrote, nor in those references. Indeed, Geisler himself said my book is "intellectually challenging," so he betrays himself when he said that.

Third, when it comes to the so-called self-defeating nature of the Outsider Test, consider this: Methodological procedures are those procedures we use to investigate something. How we go about investigating something is a separate issue that must be justified on its own terms, and I have done so in my book. Someone cannot say of the Outsider Test that I ought to be just as skeptical of it as I am about the conclusion(s) I arrive at when I apply the test, since I have justified it from the sociological facts. One must first dispute the Outsider Test on its own terms. What Christians have to do, in my opinion, is either, 1) dispute the sociological facts, or 2) dispute that they approach other faiths from the outside. Christians have one other option. 3) They can dispute that when they take the Outsider Test it leads them to deny all religious faiths. As I’ve already said, the conclusion I arrive at when I apply the Outsider Test to various religious faiths, is that they all fail. If someone thinks the Outsider Test can lead someone to adopt one particular religious faith, then that is still his or her option. I just doubt that a religious faith can pass the Outsider Test, that’s all.

Steven Carr said...

GEISLER
Second, there is nothing really new here that has not already been answered elsewhere

CARR
I'm reminded of Prime Ministers Questions in Britain.

If the PM is given a nasty question to answer, he will often say 'I refer my Right Honourable Friend to the answer given in this house on 13th Febuary 2006'

If you go and look up the record of what was said on 13/02/2006, you will see that the question was fobbed off then as well.

But if the PM says the question has been answered already, then he gets out of having to answer it this time.

Same with Geisler. He just has to say that all these objections have been answered, and all sceptics can do is point out that the answers were rubbish the first time around.

Jon Curry said...

I was also a huge fan of Geisler as a Christian. I own more books from him than from any other author. There are a lot of good things to be said about him.

Two things jump out at me from his critique that I would emphasize. The first is his claim that John has an inappropriate bias against supernatural claims due to his worldview. This is nonsense. You don't have to be a hardened skeptic to appreciate the fact that the world is rife with claims of supernatural occurrences, most of which all sides agree are untrue. Geisler himself believes that only a limited number of miracles have occurred in the world. So even he as a theist should approach a claim like the resurrection with a high degree of skepticism, and demand extraordinary evidence for justification.

Also this claim that a person needs to be skeptical of his skepticism. If I were to tell Geisler that leprechauns orbit the moon, and he were to demand proof and remain agnostic until proof was provided, would he accept in response that he should be skeptical of his skepticism? Skepticism is nothing but the common sense position that claims are not accepted without justification.

Btsai said...

Well said, Jon, I could not agree more!

Craig said...

When Geisler argues "If miracles are possible (which they are in a theistic universe)" he might as well be saying "If magic is possible (which it is in a magical universe)" or "If invisibility is possible (which it is in an invisible universe)." ANYTHING is 'possible' if you presuppose the universe supports it by definition. When Geisler then goes on to mention "eyewitness" testimony I wonder what he means by 'eyewitnesses'? The anonymous third-person authors of the Gospels or the 'eyewitnesses' mentioned by the anonymous third-person authors of the Gospels? In either case, neither of these can be considered 'eyewitnesses' by ANY stretch of the imagination. They don't even qualify as hearsay!

maybeitsnonsense said...

how do christians argue "moral failure" and the "grace of god" together? it does not makes sense that someone would "fail" and then "fall away" if god's grace were real. if the cause of "falling away" were a "misunderstanding of gods grace" then where is gods grace to bring understanding?

It truly bothers me that so many christians have "all of the right answers".

It's About Kids said...

I found your site Google-ing something on Geisler. I see that the posts on Geisler are 2 years old—but I am hoping you see my question and can respond.

I have studied and pondered deeply the question of God for over 30 years, at times to the point of being pulled in both directions simultaneously depending on whom am reading. At that point I always found myself with the same question – and I wondered if you had ever thought down this same path. Assuming (you have to indulge me here) that there are absolutes displaying internal logical harmony consistent with, again stay with me, the existence of Geisler’s God, how would the world look different today?" In other words, If the whole bible thing were true, do you suppose that blogs like yours would not exist because no argument could stand contrary the case for God?

For example (just stay with me on this) If Jesus were who he claimed as proposed in John's gospel, would you be able to develop an argument for why you would be spending your time on something else other than developing this site?

I was a science major in college and in life. I have been a time or two persuaded simultaneously by mutually exclusive propositions about God. I concluded that if I were ever to settle on one side of the argument or the other I would need one real slice of the empirical. Of course, a chat with a visitor from a few light years away telling me how religion has its season and then fades away after a few hundred thousand years of civilization would have done it. Or, I could look at, I mean really think through the implications of something I have studied for years--satisfying myself about this one
extremely relevant issue before moving on..."DNA".

Really, just one shot to the heart -- what was that for you?

Antony Flew is not a Christian, as you well know – but he is closer to truth than some who blow on houses of cards (comments on the Geisler post). Flew said that he “had to go where the evidence leads”. “It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design,” This was the “Knock-out” that persuaded him. Arguments regarding design have been the “North” for my philosophical compass.

Again, I was wondering if you could answer first question I ask (3rd paragraph above) and then tell me what that one inexorable reality was that set you on your current course?

Ron Lee
kids@ecnet.ec