An Examined Life with Jeff Allen: Dr. Andy Bannister, part 1

Andy Bannister is the Director and Lead Apologist for RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) Canada.  He speaks around the world and has a PhD in Islamic Studies and authored An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an.  

Andy and I start off our discussion by addressing the Gnostic gospels.  Now, while author Dan Brown (DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons) has asserted the idea that there has been some kind of conspiracy behind the availability of the Gnostic Gospels, the truth is that just about anyone can find the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary or any of the others at any good bookstore.

But, what are the Gnostic gospels?  Around 150-200 years after Jesus’ ascension, certain “Christian” groups decided that the historical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not enough, so they sprouted off their own sects based on these other literary works that are the Gnostic gospels.  This happened sometime around 160-170 A.D. and onwards.  And, this time gap is important, as it has been widely held amongst secular and religious scholars that the four historical gospels were all written within the lifetimes of the original witnesses, therefore its historical references could be verified.  However, in the case of the Gnostic gospels, the time gap between their authorship and the events they describe is so large that most historians do not take them seriously.  While they do tell us about what some early sects believed, they offer very little, if anything, about the historical Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the Church has not repressed or hidden these “secret gospels”, but rather they simply recognize the historical validity of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as recognize the historically shaky ground that the Gnostic gospels are founded upon.

In fact, in light of this, Chuck Colson once said that he became a Believer because he realized while in prison that people can’t keep a secret.  So the very idea that there might be a conspiracy behind the life of Jesus and this Gnostic religion formed out of a conspiracy would never truthfully happen because somebody would have talked!

Therefore, the decision we have to make is this:  Is the Jesus described in the historical gospels telling the truth, or was he a liar or deceiver.  This is the question that stands before all of us even today.

So when skeptics say, “You can’t believe the gospels.  They’re simply made up stories”, Andy actually looks them straight in the eye and responds, “Get out.  You’re really just ducking the question.  The real question that you’re refusing to ask is, ‘Was Jesus who He claims to be?  And by all means, if you hold that Jesus was a liar or a madman, then we can debate that, but skip the hogwash that the gospels are made up fiction.”

In fact, experts say that the Bible is actually the most scrutinized document in the history of mankind.  And if the other religious texts around the world were to face the same kind of scrutiny, they would have been debunked centuries ago, some simply based on their grammatical merits.

Andy ran into this in his academic work in investigating the Qur’an.  One example is when he spent about four years developing software to analyze the Qur’anic text.  Now, the Bible was digitized and analyzed pretty much as soon as the technical abilities existed, yet no one had analyzed the Qur’an in the digital era.

Likewise, one thing that I’ve noticed in listening to many of today’s Atheists is that they’re just louder without accountability.  Like calling the Bible a book of fairy tales and then dusting their hands off and walking away – it’s not really a cogent argument.  In fact, if anything, it’s just lazy and incorrect.

As C.S. Lewis, renown author as well as expert on ancient mythology, once said:  “If someone says to me that the Bible is fairy tales or fables, I ask them how many fables they’ve actually read.  I’ve spent my entire academic life reading such myths and legends.  I’m an expert on such things as Norse mythology and ancient pagan writings; and I can tell you that the Bible is simply not that type of literature.  The gospels are actually written as historical biographies, not myth, legend, nor fiction.  They contain eye-witness information, accurate information about politics, geography and contain deliberate references to historical figures and names that historians can corroborate.  Now, we can debate whether or not the historical narratives Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote are accurate, but it is absolutely false that they were written as fairy tales.

Now, in regards to the Qur’an, when Thomas Jefferson was president, he attempted to have the Qur’an distributed to schoolhouses nationwide.  He thought that Islam would become a clear and present threat to the Republic and he wanted our citizenry to be well versed in the Qur’an in order to know what to look out for.  However, today’s Islamists have turned things around and attempt to alter history by claiming that Jefferson thought that the Bible and the Qur’an were compatible.

The reality is that they are not compatible at all.  When you look at the type of civilization that Christianity birthed, Christianity was the cradle from which modern science developed.  It did not develop in the Muslim world or Chinese civilization, but Christianity – as did the concept of human rights, free speech, democracy and many more of today’s freedoms that we take for granted.  We can also look at art, music, literature, and architecture and so many other things that surround us in Western culture today and trace their roots to Christianity.  So, when people want to compare things and say that Christianity is the same as Islam, I advice them to look beyond the text and look at each book’s legacy, and consider each book’s influence on the world today.

Now, thankfully it’s merely a (albeit significant) minority of Muslims around the world, but there are some that believe that the Qur’an and the life of Mohammad give a mandate for violent jihad.  Consider what is currently happening in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.  You can easily see this understanding of the Qur’an playing out in the philosophy of ISIS is Iraq and Syria, as ideas indeed have consequences.

You see, whether you believe in Christianity, Islam or even Atheism, what you believe matters and what cultures believe have global consequences.

And speaking of Atheism, I was listening to Bill Maher recently as he was proposing that all the world’s belief systems are the same.  Well, if he’s that convicted of this idea, Andy and I think that we should raise up some funds and get Bill airfare to Saudi Arabia where he could discuss his ideas regarding the similarities of Islam and Christianity among the other religions of the world.  You see, the truth is that Bill Maher is intelligent and he knows at the core of his being that Christianity is different from other religions – including the religion of Atheism.  For instance, Bill couldn’t go to North Korea, stand up on a street corner and do a stand up comedy routine where he makes fun of the North Korean leadership.  He’d learn the violent consequences of such an act very quickly in Pyongyang.  In other words, Bill knows that he can do what he does and say what he says in America, because America is founded on Christian principles and is largely still a Christian nation.  He can mock and make fun and still walk safely down the streets of our country without fear that a group of radical Baptists are going to bomb his hotel.

On a similar note, one of my favorite and most inspirational comedians as I was coming up was George Carlin.  And, while I absolutely loved his early stuff, toward the end of his life, he became a lot more vitriolic towards religion – and, may I say, without much substance.  He would stand on stage and say, “If there is a God, may he strike me down now!”  Then he’d wait five seconds and say, “See, I’m still here, so there’s no God.”  Apparently that’s as far as his intellectual rigor went in regards to God’s existence.  But one thing he said in an interview that jumped out at me was:  These young comics today think that making fun of politicians is edgy.  The truth is that they need to get some cajones and make fun of Christianity.  Now that’s edgy!

I just sat there and laughed while I wondered, where has he been?  Comics have been making fun of Christianity for decades.

True bravery and edginess would be going to Iran and making fun of Mohammad.

As Andy says, he had more respect for the likes of Christopher Hitchens in his attack on religion in his book God is not Great where he was willing to stick his neck out and attack Islam.  Where as Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the like tend to go for the easy, low hanging fruit and take easy quick shots at Christianity while they live safely in the society that Christianity bore.

Yet, the interesting thing about poking fun at religion is that the first person to do such a thing was Jesus Christ, Himself.  In His day, Jesus had no time for a religion that was all about power and perhaps where our Atheist friends may hit a mark is in regards to their critique is the convergence of Christianity, power and politics.  But you can’t stop there.  That’s lazy.  You need to work to correct what is wrong; and that is what Christ did when He preached.  He brought the religious leaders down to size.  He attacked empty religion, but then He pointed people to what was true.

So, my and Andy’s concern with today’s new Atheism is that anyone can easily sit there and throw stones at religion or even demolish and deconstruct people’s beliefs, but they also need to build up as well.

So, I’d love to ask Bill, “If religion is wrong, then tell me what should go in its place?”

Because empty-headed Atheism ultimately will not help people.

I recall busses sponsored by Atheists around the world that were driving around with signs that said, “There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your lives!”

But, if we all lived with that as our prevailing motto, what would a single mother trying to raise three kids on just a few hundred dollars per month, or if you’re homeless and a drug addict living under a bridge somewhere in downtown Manhattan, or if you live in Iraq today as your country burns… if I’m in the shoes of any of these people, why should I stop worrying?

Because, in light of the conditions that many people live in, it would seem (under the Atheist worldview) that simply world is a mess.  There is no justice.  There is no hope.  And if this is true, then how could any of us stop from worrying and just enjoy our lives?

I also recall Bill recently saying that Atheism is not a religion.  Rather, he referred to it as “an evidence based belief”.  I was struck by this because I thought that the main reason why Atheists are Atheists was due to the “lack of evidence of a deity”.  So, shouldn’t Bill’s definition be changed to “a lack of evidence based belief”?

Andy holds that Atheisms is actually very much a belief system very similar to the religions that they seem to abhor.  If Atheism were purely an absence of belief, then Atheists would have the innate problem of identifying what an Atheist is.  Is a brick an Atheist?  A cat?  A Toilet?  None of these things believe in God, so they would qualify as Atheists under Bill’s description of simply “not believing in a god”.  So, we need to be more specific.  What they should say is that Atheism is:  A lack of belief in God by a being who has the ability to form a belief, such as a human being.

But even then, if Atheism were genuinely “not believing”, then it wouldn’t cause anything.  For instance, I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, but my lack of belief in the Tooth Fairy doesn’t cause me to write books explaining it.  It doesn’t cause me to go to conferences regarding my unbelief, and so on and so forth.  So, for something that is genuinely “unbelief”, Atheism actually looks really, really busy.

Andy’s other question that he’d love to ask Bill Maher is this:  Atheism tells me what you don’t believe in, but it doesn’t tell me what you do.  Again, I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, but my “A-Tooth-Farianism” doesn’t tell you what I believe in regards to justice, righteousness, liberty or other things that are very important to me.  My “A-Tooth-Farianism” merely expresses one thing that I don’t believe.

Therefore, Andy simply doesn’t have the time for this “Atheism is not a belief” or “Atheism is not a religion” business.  Because, even as Friedrich Nietzsche said, if you throw God out of the world’s equation, with God goes a lot of other things such as morality, and meaning and purpose in the world.  It doesn’t matter what you do, we’re all going to burn into a fire at the end of it all.  And, if there is no God, then there is no such thing as right or wrong or good or evil.  Because only God could lay down a foundation that would divide between such things.

So, as Nietzsche said, if you’re going to be an Atheist, you better have the courage to recognize that with your Atheism comes an abandonment of all of those things which are dependent on God.

Now, he was a brave man.

I think, contrarily, Bill Maher is a lazy Atheist, quite frankly.  I think he is a “Pollyanna Atheist” who wants to hold on to the cuddly things that he likes about Christianity:  he wants to think that his life does have purpose; that there is such a thing such as justice and that life has meaning; while all the while he tries to chip away at the foundation of it all which is God, Himself.

My conversation with Andy will continue in our next episode of An Examined Life.

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