The Future for Christianity
What does the future hold for Christianity? In much of Europe it seems an uphill struggle. The Media see us as being on the 'wrong side of history'. Yet in the past 50 years, I have witnessed some enormous developments, which must shape the next 50 years. I believe they give us solid grounds for encouragement!
1) The Historicity of the New Testament
It is just over 50 years ago that I first bought myself a copy of the New Testament in modern English to further my education. I very soon wanted to know what critical scholars made of these New Testament documents, and one of the books I bought was The Rise of Christianity by E.W. Barnes, published in 1947. Barnes was the Bishop of Birmingham but a radical thinker. So I was surprised to find that he accepted that the apostle Paul was the original author of the first letter to the Corinthians and that he accepted the dating which is generally agreed today, that it was written in or about AD 54, some 20+ years after Christ's crucifixion.
The trouble was that he thought much of the contents of that letter were added in later, particularly Chapter 15, which he placed early in the second century. Chapter 15 deals with the evidence for the resurrection. His thesis was that this was a very late addition, implying that it had evolved as an idea over the previous 100 years. This, of course, would lay the axe to the root of Christian belief and many people felt that the Bishop should have resigned.
That the resurrection of Christ was pivotal to the Christian story was becoming increasingly evident to me as I wrestled with these documents. So was it there from the beginning, the driving force that propelled the Gospel across the Roman Empire and into 3 continents within a generation, or was it an attractive myth that evolved over 100 years but had no basis in historical reality? Within 25 years of this book, the eminent Cambridge New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd published The Founder of Christianity. The climax and the importance of it was his treatment of 1 Corinthians 15. He is the scholar who first published the idea that the little creedal statement in verses 3-5 is historically the oldest statement of Christian belief in the New Testament. Written in a structured, rhythmic format to aid memory for oral transmission, it reads:
What I received, I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died – for our sins – according to the scriptures – and was buried – and was raised – on the third day – according to the scriptures – and appeared to Peter and to the Twelve.
When did Paul receive this creed, which was "of first importance"? Dodd maintained that it was at his meeting in Jerusalem in around AD 35 with the apostle Peter and James, the Lord's brother, who are the only two named individuals mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. James went on to be the leader of the Jerusalem Church. Paul described this meeting in his letter to the Galatians , where he puts himself on oath for the statements he made. Dodd's arguments have become pivotal in New Testament scholarship. This highly memorable statement that Barnes dated to the second century, can now be traced on purely historical grounds to "almost certainly not more than seven years, possibly no more than four"  years from the events themselves. This book was symptomatic of the revolution that the past 50 years has seen in what we now know about the authenticity of the New Testament documents and it is very difficult to imagine that, as a collection of writings, they could ever be substantially undermined again.
2) The World Religions
It was in 1968 that the Beatles went to India. There were, of course, many Indian immigrants in Britain at that time, but they tended to live in particular localities. They largely kept themselves to themselves and most English people knew very little about them. This "sceptred isle... this fortress built by Nature", as Shakespeare put it, was very self-contained and inward looking. The Times headline of October 1957, "Heavy Fog in Channel – Continent cut off" captured our view that we were at the centre of the world, and religion in the world's centre was nominally Christian for almost everyone.
The Beatles in going to India introduced us, with an enormous amount of publicity, to an exotic and colourful world of other religions. Gurus like Maharishi, with their Ashrams, telling of ancient mysteries, teaching Transcendental Meditation and Cosmic Consciousness, wearing garlands of flowers and making invocations of love and peace, were set to the fabulous and previously unheard music of Ravi Shankar on his sitar.
This was a far cry from the formal, dull rituals of the Church of England with its Victorian Hymns and ponderous organ music. Of course, the trip ended in tears and recriminations for the Beatles. The Maharishi admitted he was "only human" and seemed to them more interested in females, fame, and fortune than the deeper matters of the soul. Lennon's marriage broke up in the wake of it and the Beatles found drugs more enlightening.
Today, there is a huge literature on the world's religions and their mystique has very largely gone. Their histories and ideas are readily available to us. India remains in dreadful poverty. They may have stopped burning their widows, but corruption is endemic, and it is now generally conceded that the eastern religions could never have given rise to science, the Protestant Work Ethic or the western civilisation, which they have ushered in. There is now no possibility of a wonderful ancient creed rescuing modern man from his problems. Furthermore, none of these other ancient creeds readily cross cultures. Christianity alone has freely taken root across the world and is now owned in every continent and in every major culture.
I remember my astonishment hearing the BBC news announcing some 25 years ago that "Christian Revival has broken out in Outer Mongolia." In South Korea, which was also traditionally Buddhist, Christianity has grown dramatically since WWII and played a major role in the modernisation of the country. Today they export as many missionaries as do the United States. When I was at Medical School, we prayed regularly for China but Mao Tse Tung was in power. No news was coming out and we feared the worst for any surviving Christian students. Today the Bible is being printed in China as fast as the machines can print them and there has been a massive turning to Christ. Protestant churches are growing rapidly, both in the official church and in the underground church. Protestant Christianity is now growing at a dramatic rate in South America, Africa and Asia. Islamic countries can only compete by banning Bibles and preventing the preaching of Christ, but in these days of global travel and global communications their attempts at thought control are increasingly inadequate.
3) 1960s and The Sexual Revolution
The invention of the contraceptive pill raised enormous questions about personal morality. Where do moral and social obligations come from? The history of humanity has harboured the view that ultimate values are 'givens' and not inventions. They belong to the ultimate nature of things. The ancient Greeks attributed them to the Gods. The ancient East attributed them to a different pantheon of Gods. Though individuals down the centuries may have been atheists, the world population at large in every culture and tribe, has been almost universally religious, if Buddhism counts as a religion.
It was only in the 19th Century that the idea of atheism was pressed upon popular imagination. Famously, Nietzsche put these words into the mouth of a mad man:
"Whither is God?" he cried, "I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. God is dead and we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?"
An immediate impact of this is moral. Dostoyevsky observed that, "Without God, everything is permissible." Why? Because we would be accountable to no one. There would be no objective moral values, no moral laws and there will be no ultimate justice. There is no basis for obligation or duty. We are all free agents, like animals in the jungle, to follow our own desires. And rape is not something they worry about.
Nietszche's man-centred philosophy was profoundly influential on Hitler. For me in the 1960s, atheism impacted my soul by reading the novels of the French Existentialists, Camus and Sartre. They stared into the bleakness of a truly amoral world.
But deep in the human psyche we are all aware of evil. Evil desires in ourselves and evil deeds around us. We might disagree as to what constitutes evil, but the torturing of children for pleasure or the atrocities of Boko Haram would settle the matter for most us. So William Lane Craig formulates the argument:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. But (surely), objective moral values do exist, therefore God exists.
4) The Origins of the Universe
In the 1960s there was relentless public debate about the origins of the universe. The ancient idea that the universe had an infinite past was championed by Cambridge astronomer Professor Fred Hoyle. He maintained the universe existed in a 'steady state'. How he held this view in the light of the Second Law of Thermodynamics I still don't understand, because that law expresses we what all know: that fires go out, that heat dissipates and that warm houses get cold unless you keep burning more fuel. Yet that is what he and many others believed about the universe, that it was eternal and would somehow avoid heat death.
Offering a different perspective had been astronomer Edwin Hubble. In the 1920s, he observed that the universe was actually expanding, which implied that it had a beginning. This view was vindicated in 1965 when the cosmic microwave background radiation was first observed. This was understood to be a residue from the flash from the Big Bang. Hoyle, who actually coined the phrase The Big Bang, continued to believe in the Steady State Theory to his dying day. But over the past 50 years, cosmological evidence has increasingly supported the Big Bang theory, which now seems to be universally held by cosmologists.
In 1979, philosopher William Lane Craig published his version of the cosmological argument. Deceptively simple, it has become the most debated argument for the existence of God. In fact, I learned yesterday that the philosophy department of an English university has just invited him to give a public lecture on the subject next year, some 35 years after he first published it. This is an argument that is not going away. As Craig expressed it, the argument states that "whatever begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefore the universe has a cause".
It is generally conceded that things don't just pop into existence uncaused. The crunch issue has been whether the universe really did begin to exist. Other possibilities have come and gone, such as an infinitely oscillating model, whereby the universe endlessly expands from a Big Bang and then contracts to a Big Crunch, which explodes again. This view is now discarded and there is almost universal agreement among cosmologists that the universe began to exist in an explosion out of nothing, some 13.8 billion years ago, and is destined to go on expanding forever, long after it experiences heat death.
Last year, Craig debated atheist cosmologist Laurence Krauss over three encounters in Australia, which can be seen on You Tube. It was a difficult series because of Krauss's rude and aggressive behaviour. But Craig came away satisfied. Krauss eventually and reluctantly admitted the crucial point that it was "a more likely possibility" that the universe began to exist.
Now this is no small matter. Sir Martin Rees, the former Astronomer Royal, feels that the beginning of the universe may be entirely beyond our comprehension. Stephen Hawking believes we can never understand it, because we are inside the system we are trying to analyse. We would need an outsider's perspective, which we can never have.
Listen to Oxford scientist and militant atheist, Professor Peter Atkins: "Almost every scientist is wisely unwilling to express a view about the events accompanying the inception of the universe. Quite honestly," he says, "they haven’t a clue".
He goes on, "A scientist ... has to admit that if at any stage an agent must be invoked to account for what there is, then science will have to concede the existence of what we have agreed to call a God."
5) The Evidence of Fine-Tuning
It was atheist Fred Hoyle who marvelled at the extraordinary capabilities of the carbon atom, which is so fundamental to life. He wrote:
Would you not say to yourself, "Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly miniscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics as well as with chemistry and biology... The numbers one calculates from the facts seem so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
In 1989, a book entitled Cosmic Coincidences said that Carbon-based life was the deliberate end of a Universe "tailor-made for man". One of the authors, Sir Martin Rees, published his own book on the fine-tuning of the universe in 1999, called Just Six Numbers. Cosmologist Paul Davies wrote The Goldilocks Enigma in 2006, and Stephen Hawking described the fine-tuning in detail in his book The Grand Design in 2010. Between them, they have spelled out at a popular level the discoveries of the last thirty years, which have hugely built on what Hoyle discovered about Carbon.
Sir Martin Rees, himself an agnostic, opened his book on fine tuning by saying, "Mathematical laws underpin the fabric of our universe – not just atoms, but galaxies, stars and people... And everything takes place in the arena of an expanding universe, whose properties were imprinted into it at the time of the initial Big Bang." It is an extraordinary fact that this fine-tuning was set at the first moment of time.
The latest book to read on the subject seems to be Lucky Planet by geophysicist David Waltham of Royal Holloway University, London, published this month. He attributes the stable climate of the past four billion years, which have enabled intelligent life to evolve, to be in large part due to the moon stabilising the Earth's axis. The likelihood of this happening is such that even though there are vast numbers of planets, he thinks ours may well be the only one able to support intelligent life. Atheist Matt Ridley, who debated Craig in Mexico, writes "There does seem to be a long string of coincidences behind our existence. Waltham posits three possible explanations: God, Gaia or Goldilocks." Ridley dismisses the first two options without comment and claims that the Moon delivers the verdict decisively to Goldilocks claiming "It is just an amazing fluke" that we are neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.
But the numbers are fantastic. Stephen Hawking wrote, for instance, "If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have re-collapsed before it ever reached its present size." As William Craig has written, "Improbability is added to improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers." So atheist Hawking wrote:
The discovery relatively recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many of the laws of nature could lead at least some of us back to the old idea that this grand design is the work of some grand designer.
It is difficult to imagine that these discoveries will ever be radically overthrown. Science now points us not only to the necessity of an agent who created everything out of nothing but also to the intelligent designer of the universe who tailor-made it for intelligent life.
I have had a great concern over the years that the primary means of effective evangelism is in dialogue. As Jesus and his apostles found, it is only in listening and responding to people's honest questions that we can address their levels of ignorance and confusion on one hand and their intellectual and moral difficulties on the other. When people have heard the Gospel, they ask very much the same questions. This should not surprise us. Their questions flow out of the Gospel they have just heard:
Why do you believe in God? Is the evidence about Christ reliable? Is Christianity unique among the world's religions? If God is love, why is there suffering and evil? Doesn't science disprove God?
If we are going to win the world for Christ, these are the fundamental questions we must address. In just 50 years, the landscape of our answers has changed dramatically. New Testament scholarship has come through a major revolution. The other world religions have lost their charm – some of them massively. There is no remedy for the moral void that exists without God and science has come robustly to our aid. Now with the communications revolution, the religion of Christ is making major advances on every continent, except Europe. So we have got a tough job to do, but I put it to you that the case for Christ has never been stronger.
 E.W. Barnes The Rise of Christianity Longman, Green 1947, p.228.
 Galatians 1:18-20.
 C.H. Dodd The Founder of Christianity Collins Fontana, 1971, p.174.
 F. Nietzsche The Gay Science New York: Viking 1954, p.95.
 W.L. Craig Reasonable Faith Crossway Books, 1994, p.92.
 P. Atkins On Being OUP, 2011, p.5.
 Ibid., p.11.
 Gribbin and Rees Cosmic Coincidences 1989.
 M. Rees Just Six Numbers Phoenix, 1999, p.1.
 D. Waltham Lucky Planet Basic Books, 2014.
 M. Ridley 'The Goldilocks effect tells us we are all alone' The Times Monday 5th May 2014.
 S. Hawking A Brief History of Time Bantam Press, 1988, p.121.
 S. Hawking and L. Mlodinow The Grand Design Bantam Press, 2010, p.164.
© 2014 Peter May