Why I am a Christian

by Vincent Torley

[NOTE: The topic of this essay, which I was invited to write by philosopher Jonathan M.S. Pearce, is "Why I am a Christian", not "Why I am a Catholic" (as I happen to be). The Christianity which I defend in this article is the "Mere Christianity" of C. S. Lewis, which acknowledges the central dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement (without tying itself to any particular theory of the Atonement), but makes no commitment to the claim that the Bible is entirely free from error, as one could still consistently believe in the great Christian mysteries of faith, even if one did not accept Scriptural inerrancy. In my article, I also express optimism regarding the ultimate salvation of people who reject Christianity, but in voicing this hope, I am not claiming that people can be saved without God's supernatural grace, which is absolutely essential for even the tiniest act of faith, hope or charity. What I am claiming instead is that God's grace can work in all kinds of strange places: it reaches into every nook and cranny of the cosmos. Or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." Finally, in this essay, I defend a popular, Boethian account of Divine foreknowledge (as Lewis did), but I am well aware that there are many other accounts of God's foreknowledge within the Christian tradition. Without further ado, here's my essay, "Why I am a Christian". Enjoy!]

Before I explain why I am a Christian, I'd like to address the problem of evil. The world we live in is filled with all manner of appalling (and pointless) evils, and in most cases, we have no satisfactory explanation as to why an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator would permit these evils to continue, for even one moment. At the same time, there's no proof that the existence of these evils is logically incompatible with there being a God. There isn't even a probabilistic argument; for if there were one, then it should be able to provide us with a mathematical estimate for the likelihood of God's existence (or at least, an upper and lower limit). What we have instead is a strong prima facie argument against the existence of God. It's an emotionally powerful one, but we need to recognize it for what it is: an argument from incredulity. We cannot imagine how a good God could make or even allow a world like this to exist, in which so many people (and sentient animals) suffer so needlessly. Rather than answer that question, let me quickly point out several flaws in the argument.

First, it implicitly assumes a static model of evil: there is evil, and there is God, and we are asked how the existence of the two can be reconciled. But the world is a changing place. What we need to ask, then, is whether the changes occurring in the world comport with what we'd expect of a morally good Deity. And to answer that question, we'd need to know a lot more about the world than we know now.

Second, the argument assumes that God can get the job of removing evil done in no time. Maybe He can't. Just because we can mentally picture an omnipotent being instantly abolishing evil by Divine fiat ("Let there be no more suffering!"), that doesn't mean it's possible in the real world. Maybe it's not that simple, even for God. Maybe freeing the world from evil necessarily takes quite some time.

Third, the argument assumes that the only relevant duty that God might have vis-à-vis creatures is the duty to prevent them from suffering when there's no good reason for them to do so. But if God has other kinds of duties towards creatures as well, then we have to at least consider the possibility that these duties might get in the way of Him removing pointless evils from the world, all at once. Perhaps it would be bad for us if He were to do that – perhaps even worse than it is now.

Fourth, the argument assumes that God's duties vis-à-vis creatures are determined purely by their nature, as sentient and/or sapient beings. The argument fails to consider the possibility that God might have extra duties towards us that He assumed voluntarily, at some point in the past – perhaps because we asked Him to do so. Perhaps at some point very early on in our prehistory, our ancestors grew tired of God always watching over us like the attentive parent of a young child, and said, "Enough! We don't need a cosmic nanny protecting us from evil! Leave us alone to figure it out for ourselves!" And maybe God reluctantly complied with their wishes, and promised to refrain from continually saving us.

Fifth, the argument assumes that the only morally significant beings who exist in the cosmos are God and ourselves – i.e. the sentient human and animal life-forms that we see all around us. But that's a ridiculously narrow view. If there is a God, then He could have made rank upon rank of beings higher than ourselves, whom we know nothing about, because they're invisible to us. Call them angels or advanced aliens, if you wish: I don't care. The point I wish to make is that if there is a God, then it's highly unlikely that we are the greatest beings in creation – which means that when deciding what God should and shouldn't do, we also need to factor in God's obligations vis-à-vis these higher intelligences. Why might that ameliorate the problem of evil? Perhaps God assigned certain responsibilities for looking after the lower orders of creation (including ourselves and other sentient animals) to these higher beings. (Think about it. It would be funny if they had absolutely nothing to oversee, wouldn't it?) And now suppose that some of these intelligences turn out to be either too lazy to continually keep the world's evils in check, or too inept to do the job properly, or positively evil characters. The world would soon become "unweeded garden" filled with "things rank and gross in nature", as Hamlet put it. It might look utterly unlike the world God originally planned. So what's God to do, when He sees the damage that these higher intelligences have wrought, and the suffering His lower creatures (animals and humans) have inherited as a result? Having delegated some responsibilities for overseeing creation to these higher beings, should God intervene at once and fix up the mess they've caused? Or should He wait a while?

Sixth, and most importantly, the argument assumes that an omniscient God knows what His creatures would and wouldn't choose to do, before He's even decided to make them. But when you come to think about it, that really doesn't make sense, if sapient beings possess libertarian free will. In that case, God's knowledge of His creatures' choices would be (at least logically) posterior to His act of creating them. All God would know "prior" to that act would be what they might get up to. But is God morally obliged to refrain from creating a sapient creature, simply because it might abuse its capacity for good and evil, and wreak untold harms in the world? I think not, for if He were, then He'd be obliged to create a world without libertarian free will. And how many of us would want that? I conclude that the problem of evil is a real problem only in relatively simple cosmos, in which we're the most important beings there are. But if there's a God, the cosmos may not be like that at all. The presence of other agents with libertarian free will in the cosmos, who are much greater than ourselves, complicates the picture: we can no longer say with confidence what God should and shouldn't do in such a cosmos, when it comes to removing evil.

I'll just say a little about Jonathan's big question: why don't animals photosynthesize instead of preying on one another? Well, that wouldn't work, as they couldn't obtain enough energy to meet their daily needs. So meeting Jonathan's request would mean altering the laws of physics, with who knows what consequences. I'll also note that death from predation is a good deal less painful than death from starvation, thirst or cold. I should also add that animal deaths from predation wouldn't be a theological conundrum if animals died painlessly. Maybe that's what God originally intended, before His handiwork was fouled up by other intelligences. Finally, I do not believe we can rule out animal immortality. At least some Christians have believed in it for 500 years now, so it's not a trendy modern notion. That still leaves animal suffering on Earth unexplained, of course.

Of course, I realize that there are some people who think that the very notion of libertarian free will makes no sense. One of the best arguments I have heard against libertarian freedom is that for any choice made by an agent in a particular set of circumstances, there must always be an explanation of why that choice, and only that choice, could have been made – otherwise, they say, the choice is random, which would also preclude it from being free. However, I would question the claim that for any non-random choice, there must be an explanation of why only that choice, could have been made. Surely it's enough to explain why that choice was made. Additionally, I would argue that a good explanation of why a choice was made doesn't have to be an explanation in terms of prior physical causes which determine that choice. It could be an explanation in terms of the agent's future goals. Finally, I would like to point out that a goal-oriented explanation doesn't have to be a deterministic one. And there are reasons for thinking it couldn't be, anyway. As John Finnis points out in his book, "Natural Law and Natural Rights", the basic goods that we choose from cannot be ranked: they are incommensurable. (Which would have been "better" for the young Leonardo da Vinci to have chosen: a career in the arts, or in the sciences?) To reply that we will in fact choose the good that we happen to like best is to assume, question-beggingly, that the attraction of these various goods can be weighed against one another, like the opposing pulls and pushes in some vector diagram. There's not the slightest piece of evidence that this assumption is true.

I'd now like to say why I believe in God. The short answer is: because the universe, for all its faults, is the kind of thing that only God could have made. There are certain regularities that hold everywhere in Nature, which we call laws. They share several traits: first, they are reliable; second, they are contingent; third, they are expressible in the language of mathematics; fourth, they are beautiful in a way that only a mathematician can fully appreciate; and fifth, they are exquisitely fine-tuned for life. The reliability of these laws shows that they are prescriptions for how the universe ought to behave rather than mere descriptions of how it actually behaves. The reason is that mere regularities can never warrant justified beliefs about the future: for no matter how often these regularities may be repeated, it remains true that possible futures in which these regularities break down at some point are always infinitely more numerous than possible futures where they don't. So either reality has built-in prescriptive properties or we have no scientific knowledge about the future. But prescriptions are very odd things: while things may conform to them, only minds can issue them in the first place. The world, then, is already starting to look like "one giant thought", to use Sir James Jeans' memorable phrase. However, the laws of Nature lack any kind of mathematical or logical necessity, and although we trust that they will continue to hold in the future, we can certainly conceive of the possibility that they will not. Thus if the laws of Nature come from a Mind, they are best conceived as free choices made by that Mind, rather than as decisions that it is constrained to make. Further confirmation of the claim that laws are issued by an Intelligent Being comes from the fact that they are written in the language of mathematics – and very elegant mathematics at that. Physicists who investigate the laws of the cosmos frequently express their amazement at the beauty of these laws, even if they are atheists. Mathematical beauty is not a property that we would expect laws to exhibit, unless they issued from a Mind. Additionally, the fine-tuning of the laws of Nature, the constants of physics and the initial conditions of the universe for life is best explained by the fact that the laws of Nature were designed by a Mind with the intention of producing a world populated by living things – and in particular, sentient and sapient beings. Positing a multiverse fails to eliminate the fine-tuning problem, for as Dr. Robin Collins has cogently argued, a multiverse would itself need to be fine-tuned, in order to be able to generate a universe like ours. When we enter the realm of biology, the impression of a Mind at work in Nature is unmistakable. For instance, we find digital codes in living things. We even find programs. Codes and programs are the sorts of things that only a Mind can make. Smart-aleck atheistic retorts about laryngeal nerves and prostate glands overlook the fundamental question: if the biosphere is not the product of a Mind, then why do we find codes and programs in Nature? Finally, psychology furnishes us with still more proof of the irreducibility of mind to matter: our thoughts not only have a subjective feel (which is odd enough) but also an intrinsic meaning of their own, as they possess propositional content. Meaning is a formal rather than a material property; matter as such is incapable of possessing any inherent meaning.

We have thus arrived at a Mind that generated the cosmos with its laws, as well as the fundamental biochemical features of living things, and Whose thoughts are not grounded in matter. This is a very important conclusion: if there is a Mind behind everything, then it is no use objecting that all the minds we have observed to date are embodied. This One can't be. A body is something whose behavior is characterized by laws; and the Mind whose existence we've inferred is prior to those laws, for it created them. Consequently it must be bodiless. What's more, it must also be simple: for anything composite would stand in need of a further explanation: it would need something to hold its various parts together. Only a metaphysically simple Mind could be self-explanatory. What can we say of such a Mind? The only activities we can meaningfully ascribe to this Mind are understanding, love and choice: for only these activities are not intrinsically dependent on having a body, and we have already provided grounds for arguing that the Maker of the cosmos possesses understanding (otherwise it could not generate mathematical beauty) and makes choices (as shown by the sheer contingency of our fine-tuned cosmos). What about love, you ask? Good question. All I will say is that the Mind behind Nature must serve as the explanation of all other minds, and a Being devoid of love could not produce minds like ours, for whom love is ethically fundamental (think of the Golden Rule). The evil in the world may appall us; but the more fundamental fact is that we live in a world in which we possess moral obligations, including the obligation to love our neighbor. The existence of these obligations is as objective a fact as the nose on your face. We cannot be obliged to love one another, unless there be a Being Who is Love itself.

On an autobiographical note, I should say that despite my Catholic upbringing, I came to reject belief in a personal God when I was 28, after a period of prolonged philosophical doubt. But even after rejecting belief in a personal God, scientific materialism never struck me as a viable worldview. It could not provide a remotely satisfactory explanation for: (a) the fact that I was able to have conscious and meaningful experiences; (b) the fact that I was able to enjoy beauty, and experience it as being somehow transcendent to myself; or (c) the fact that I knew that I was capable of making genuine moral choices, and there were things I should and shouldn't do. Over the fifteen years that followed, I gradually came to realize that only a personal God could satisfactorily account for these facts.

By now, we can discern, in broad outline, the answer to Gauguin's three big questions: "Whence came we? What are we? Whither go we?" We come from God; we are children of God, with rational minds that are capable of inferring His existence; and finally, since we are capable of knowing God and thereby partaking of the Infinite, it is a fair bet to say that our ultimate destiny lies with God. Trifling questions about where Heaven is and how our consciousness will survive the death of our bodies need not concern us: this universe is God's universe, and if He wants us to be with Him forever, then no doubt He has arranged the universe in ways that make it possible for that to happen. God is the master physicist of the cosmos: leave the fine details of immortality to Him. Our job is to live the kind of moral and spiritual life that can prepare us for eternity with our Maker.

But at this point we realize that we fall badly short of what we should be. We cannot lift ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps: trying to be good won't make us good. Instead, it tends to make us self-centered. This point was personally brought home to me after fifteen years of spiritual wandering, after having rejected Christianity at the age 28. I explored everything form pantheism to Buddhism to Quakerism to Bahaism, but I never did find a form of spirituality that satisfied my intellectual needs and that provided me with not only a way to resolve moral questions but also a way to become a good person myself. Curiously, though, over the 15 years that followed, I found that many of the arguments against Christianity which seemed utterly unanswerable to me when I was 28 seemed to lose their force over the years: they gradually melted away. In 2004, at the age of 43, I found myself an expectant father-to-be. The prospect of impending parenthood concentrates the mind wonderfully, and I realized that New Age self-help spirituality was not what I wanted to pass on to my child. It hadn't made me a good person; it had only made me more self-centered. I adopted a radical solution: I needed to find a religion that took me "out of" myself and provided me with an exemplar of moral perfection. That exemplar was Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The Incarnation is the central mystery of Christianity: 2,000 years ago, God came down and lived among us as a man. Either the Incarnation grabs you at the level of the heart or it doesn't. If it does, then you'll always experience a sense of something missing in other faiths, and they will ever satisfy you. When I was 28, I thought the Incarnation was impossible; when I was 43, I finally realized that it was both true and beautiful. Reading the Gospels after a long interval, what struck me was that Jesus was a man without an ego or a human personality; what He had, I realized, was a human mind and will, which were wholly assumed by the Mind and Will of God. His freedom was of a different kind from ours. We each have our own little personality, and we are capable of defying God. But because Jesus is a Divine Person, that's not a choice His human will can make: sin is out of the question for Him. What He does have is the freedom to do good in whatever way He chooses. “Why didn't God make all of us like that?” I hear some of you ask. Short answer: if He did, then you wouldn't be “you” anymore. You'd have to give up your human personality in order to be like that.

By the way, I happen to adopt a Scotistic view of the Incarnation: I think God would still have become man, even if there hadn't been a Fall, simply because He loves us.

The Trinity is another doctrine that bugs many people. I like to keep it simple: God knows and loves Himself perfectly. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the Mind of God, God's Understanding of Himself, and God's Love of Himself. They are irreducibly distinct modes of God's innermost being, which is why when we pray to God, we should have not a two-way but a six-way relationship with Him.

Since God is our Father, He must love us like parents love their own children, only immeasurably more so. If God has created us for eternity with Him, then it would be absurd to imagine that He would let us separate ourselves from Him forever, without exhausting all possible options to bring us back. The notion of a God Who delights in punishing people in Hell, or in making the road to Heaven as difficult as possible, is absurd. I have family members who are not Christians; indeed, some are agnostics and atheists. I do not agonize about whether they will be saved; I simply assume that somehow, God will take care of that, since I know that they have a lot of goodness and love in their hearts.

I haven't said a thing about the Bible yet. Reading the Scriptures brought me back to Christianity, but you don't need to believe the Bible is inspired or infallible in order to believe that it conveys the truth about God becoming man, 2,000 years ago. As it happens, I am now a Catholic again, and I accept the Church's canon of Scripture; but if passages in the Bible are a stumbling block to your faith, then my advice would be: don't push yourself too hard. The most important thing is to believe in the Trinity (the God of love) and the Incarnation (God becoming man), and to realize that Jesus Christ is our exemplar (the ideal man), Who by His life and death set a perfect role model for us and reconciled the world to God, after a long period of estrangement. (By the way, for those looking for a sensible way of viewing the doctrine of the Atonement, I'd recommend what Dr. Robin Collins has written.)

I'll mention two more things quickly. You'll hear a lot about the harm Christianity has done, down through the ages. It's certainly true that Christians have killed millions, and that often this killing was religiously motivated. What people overlook, however, is that Christianity has saved the lives of billions – especially women. If you add up all the lives saved as a result of Christianity's prohibition of female infanticide, and if you bear in mind that in the Roman Empire (population 60 million), the ratio of males to females was at least 120:100 (see Rodney Stark's "The Rise of Christianity"), it's not hard to calculate that hundreds of millions of girls' lives must have been saved during the thousand years after Christianity was adopted. (I might add that the Abrahamic faiths are the only ones that have managed to eradicate female infanticide; it still plagues China and India to this day.) Another major life-saver was the Church's absolute prohibition of suicide, which prevented many needless deaths, as the historian Lecky freely admits. Finally, Christian charity, which has been very well-organized since the second century, undoubtedly saved millions of lives during times of plague and famine, as Stark points out in his book. Add it all up, and you get billions of lives saved, over the ages. That dwarfs the 50 million deaths (by a very generous count) that you might put down to Christians behaving badly. And I haven't even mentioned the lives saved by the Church's prohibition of abortion. I've written an online book on abortion entitled, "Embryo and Einstein: Why They're Equal".

The last thing I'll mention is that Christian miracles are real. I'll confine myself to one well-authenticated case, backed up by thirteen volumes of eyewitness testimonials which are kept in the Vatican library: the 17th century Italian saint, Joseph of Cupertino, who was seen levitating well above the ground and even flying for some distance through the air, on literally thousands of occasions, by believers and skeptics alike. Some of his flights were observed to last for literally hours on end. The saint was the phenomenon of the 17th century. Those who are curious might like to have a look at his biography by D. Bernini (Vita Del Giuseppe da Copertino, 1752, Roma: Ludovico Tinassi and Girolamo Mainardi). If you can't get hold of it, try "The Flying Saint" (The Messenger of Saint Anthony, January 2003), by Renzo Allegri, here. Another miracle I'm currently documenting is the miracle of Calanda (yes, God does heal amputees): I'll have an article on that one ready in a few days. Such signs are rare; but one well-authenticated sign should be enough.

So there you have it. I hope this article of mine will dispel some obstacles to faith, and I pray that it will bring some readers to faith.

Vincent Torley is originally from Geelong, Australia. After obtaining a B.Sc., a B.A. and a B.Ec. from the Australian National University (all at no cost to himself), he worked for several years as a computer programmer in Melbourne, during which time he obtained an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne. In 1999, he moved to Japan to take up a job as an English teacher, returning to Australia for a year in 2001 to complete a Dip. Ed. in high school teaching before going back to Japan, where he has resided ever since. He obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne in 2007, while studying in Japan. He currently teaches English in high schools, as well as teaching English conversation and business English. He is married and the father of a seven-year-old son. His personal Web page is at http://www.angelfore.com/linux/vjtorley/index.html (here).