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God’s Not Dead: Justin Brierley

with Justin Brierley | January 3, 2024
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Could we be witnessing a return of belief in God in our generation? Apologist Justin Brierley, author of Rediscovering the Bible and the Alternative Story of Science, offers compelling scientific evidence for robust faith.

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Could we be witnessing a return of belief in God in our generation? Apologist Justin Brierley offers compelling scientific evidence for robust faith.

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God’s Not Dead: Justin Brierley

With Justin Brierley
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January 03, 2024
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Justin: We need something to believe in. We need a story. That’s what helps humans to flourish. We all need a story to live in, and the problem is, that other story that Atheism told, about this being a meaningless universe, took away our story. That’s part of why we have a mental health crisis: people who don’t know who they are, what they’re supposed to believe in. We see a rise in anxiety, depression, [and] suicide. I think it’s all tied into this idea that we’ve lost a story that makes sense of who we are.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: We have Justin Brierley in the studio, who is an authority, a theologian, a thinker, and a very, very wise Christian apologist; really, one of the best in the world. It’s a privilege to have you not only in America, but in Orlando in our studio. Justin, welcome back. This is our third day in a row that we’ve had you here.

Justin: Thank you.

Dave: We just want to say we’re privileged to have you here. I met your son, Noah, and I don’t know, [but] he might be the most impressive Brierley that I’ve met. [Laughter]

Justin: He’s impressive in lots of different ways. Firstly, height. He towers about a foot above me.

Dave: I had a professor in seminary—I don’t know if you’ve ever met J.P. Moreland?

Justin: I have.

Dave: Have you? You know J.P.?

Justin: I do.

Dave: He was one of my profs, and I’ll never forget; he taught theology and many things, but really shaped me. It was one of the first times in my life that I was challenged to think, really think. I don’t think a day went by that he didn’t make you think—

Ann: —you were thinking about football all those years prior.

Dave: Hey, you didn’t have to throw that in there. [Laughter]

—but about God and about theology. I’ll never forget: he said one day in class, “You always have to be ready, as a presenter, to take all your belief and truth and put it on the bottom shelf.” He often said, “I would leave some of the deepest things for later, and they would come out in the Q & A. I wouldn’t give them everything. I’d put it down on a bottom shelf where laymen live and they can understand.”

Here’s what I thought: “Let’s get you to bottom shelf some things for our listeners.” I’ve never done this. This book is great—The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God—where you’re making the case that not everybody is walking away. There is a surprising rebirth. It’s surprising, because you’re not hearing about it, and it’s real. Throughout the book, you show us why. Could you take—we’ll just give you the chapter title, and you bottom shelf it.

Justin: Okay.

Dave: I know as an author—we’ve written, you have thousands of ideas, and you have to condense them to a few in each chapter. I thought it would help our parents, especially, as we’re raising our kids. This is hopeful for a parent, for a family. There’s really a rebirth in belief in God? Nobody’s talking about this. You have chapter after chapter [where] you say, “Let me talk about it in this area.”

You’re looking at the same thing I am; Chapter One: The Rise and Fall of New Atheism. What would you put on the bottom shelf for us?

Justin: Okay, challenge accepted. Alright, New Atheism was a movement that claimed that God was dead, but by tearing God down, they failed to replace God with anything that people could believe in that could give them meaning in their life. That was the problem; Atheism itself can’t give people a meaningful world view. In fact, New Atheism itself unraveled from the inside, because there was so much infighting between the leaders about where their movement should go. That, ultimately, was the reason it collapsed.

The problem is that we’re still religious. Whether we’re religious about Christianity or not, we’ll be religious about something. Some people got religious about Atheism. In fact, the New Atheism really swept the board and meant that all kinds of other religious ideologies took the place of Christianity; but none of those work, and that’s the problem. We’re still left with the problem of, “What do we believe in once we stop believing in God?”

I think, in a funny way, we had to get to the point of realizing that Atheism couldn’t give us a worldview that made sense of our life for people to be ready to potentially go back to God. So, the rise and fall of New Atheism was an interesting moment in our culture, but, ultimately, it pointed us to the fact that we really can’t live without something like God.

Dave: It’s interesting when you say that—

Ann: —hey, that was good.

Dave: That was good.

Ann: That was really good.

Dave: Authors have to do that. You have to present to the publisher: “This is what this chapter’s about,” and you just did. Alright, Chapter Two: The New Conversation on God.

Justin: Over the years, I noticed that the conversations I was hosting between Christians and Atheists were changing. No longer the bombastic debates between New Atheists and Christian thinkers, but actually interesting secular thinkers who were really valuing the God-question again. They weren’t dismissing Christianity as a helpful way of understanding life.

They weren’t necessarily Christians themselves, but they were opening the door to other people. This would include Jordan Peterson, whom we spoke about in an earlier conversation, but also someone like Tom Holland, not the Spiderman actor in the Marvel films, but a historian in the U.K. He runs a fantastically popular podcast called The Rest is History.

I’ve had a number of conversations with Tom Holland, who grew up, essentially, as a secular individual. He sort of had nominal Christian faith growing up, but it fizzled out by his teenage years. After he became a historian writing popular historical works, he investigated and researched the world of the Greeks and the Romans.

He found it exciting, but also completely alien to his own way of thinking, because this was a world where slavery was part of the economic status quo, where people could be sexual property, where the lives of women and children were very cheap, where the enslavement and killing of a million people by an emperor was a cause of triumph and celebration. He realized his own beliefs in equality, dignity, freedom, and human rights didn’t come from the Greeks and the Romans, and they didn’t come from science or Atheism.

He realized they came from the Christian revolution. That was the thing that had changed the world. Tom Holland has been saying ever since, as a secular person himself, [that] we believe in these things because of Jesus Christ, and a lot of his humanist friends are getting very annoyed with the fact that he’s come to this conclusion. [Laughter]

But he’s such an interesting example of the secular intellectuals who are coming to very Christian conclusions about who we are and why we believe what we believe. I believe we’re at this moment where, actually, people are taking the Christian story seriously again. So, this chapter is about showing some of these key players who are involved in starting to talk about Christian faith in this way again.

Ann: It’s exciting.

Dave: Chapter Three: Shaped by the Christian Story.

Justin: This is where I really go into depth on that story of Tom Holland, actually, because the way in which he has shown just how indebted western culture is to the Christian story is phenomenal. Things we take for granted today, like equality, dignity, [and] compassion, did not exist in other cultures in the past.

Okay, if you go back to ancient Roman culture, many people are shocked to learn that it was a common practice, if a family had a girl that was unwanted—perhaps they were looking for a boy, they could leave that girl on a rubbish tip to be eaten by wild animals. It beggars belief now! You would think, “Gosh, how on earth could they have done such a thing?” But it was common practice back then.

There’s a letter we have of a soldier who writes back to his wife at home and says, “I hear you’re pregnant. That’s great. If it’s a boy, wonderful. If it’s a girl, expose it,” which simply means to leave it. What changed? Why do we now think of that as an abhorrent practice? Christianity is what changed, specifically Judaism first, where there was this prolife ethic imbedded, the idea that people are made in the image of God; but the Christian church really took that thought and made it global.

They were the ones who began to start to rescue these children from these rubbish tips. They started to adopt these children. The early Christian church, it’s been shown by sociologists like Rodney Stark, grew primarily because of the way it treated women and children. It was completely countercultural. We should embrace that. We should celebrate that Christians were the ones who treated women and children differently to anyone else.

They were the ones who started hospitals, who started schools, who started orphanages, who started to care for the most vulnerable and oppressed in our culture. And the reason we now take that for granted, that we should be doing these things, that we should look out for people, is because we’re still fundamentally Christian in our instincts. But we’ve forgotten the Christian story that gave us those instincts.

The point of all this is to say that, actually, when we meet our atheist and humanist friends, it’s worth bearing this in mind: that to a large degree, their views about life, the value they put on justice and equality and human rights, it didn’t come from their Atheism. It came from the Christian story, and that might just be the starting point to helping them realize that, despite everything, they’re actually more Christian than they realize.

This was something Tom Holland famously said to me: he said, “I began to realize that even though I don’t believe the Christian story, in almost every way I am a Christian, because my moral instincts have been completely shaped by the Christian story.” So, this chapter is really about helping people to realize that, whether they realize it or not, the Christian story is still an undercurrent in our culture. It’s still there, and I believe that’s why it could come back again.

Ann: That’s good thinking.

Dave: What a strong apologetic that is. That’s powerful. It really is. Okay, Rediscovering the Bible.

Justin: The Bible was one of the key things that the new Atheists sought to destroy. They thought, “This is an irrelevant, unreliable, pointless bit of ancient literature that’s done a great deal of damage to the world.” That was the story they were painting of the Bible. I think that’s changing in our culture. I think people have realized that that’s a simplistic and denigrating way of talking about Scripture.

Even someone like Richard Dawkins, one of the most well-known Atheists in the world, actually helped to fund a campaign to see the King James version of the Bible put into every school in the U.K., because even he, as an atheist, understood the literary value of the Bible. Just think of the number of phrases that we use in everyday parlance that came from the Bible—“going the extra mile,” the Good Samaritan—these are just phrases that we use every day, but they came to us because of the Bible.

Ann: I’m kind of shocked by that; that he had Bibles put into the school for that reason.

Justin: Yes, he did. He said he didn’t believe what they said was true, [laughter] but he did understand that it was probably one of the greatest repositories of English language in the world. And it is simply true: you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the extraordinary literary value. There are probably three main things that have shaped the Western world in terms of literature: Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible; but the Bible came before both Milton and Shakespeare. They were both drawing on the Bible.

The Bible simply is an extraordinarily fruitful document. It has not only shaped Western culture in terms of its literature and art for centuries, it’s also been behind some of the greatest social movements in the world. The abolition of the slave trade was led by evangelicals who believed what the Bible said. It’s been extraordinarily influential.

The problem is, when the new Atheists came along and again tried to tear it down, I don’t think they really knew what they were dealing with, because people have tried to get rid of the Bible many times over the years. Voltaire, a couple of hundred years ago, was a skeptic Atheist in France, and he wrote: “A hundred years from my day, the Bible will be seen as a museum piece, an antiquarian piece of writing.” The irony was that a hundred years from his day, Voltaire’s house was being used to print Bibles by the Evangelical Society of Geneva. [Laughter]

The point is, the Bible has this habit of, every time someone tries to tear it down, it comes back, because it actually has something rather unique about it. This is what I developed in the chapter. It actually has the ability to speak across many different times, places, and cultures. Yes, it is a book of lots of ancient, sometimes mysterious, writings that we struggle to understand, but actually, it has transformed every single culture that it has come into contact with.

There’s something different, unusual, about this book. And when you start to uncover it, you start to realize just how powerful it is. So, I tried to do a bit of both in this chapter: show why the Bible is so foundational in our culture, but more than that, we can actually believe what is written in it as well.

Dave: I don’t know if you have the energy to do three more chapters.

Justin: Let’s go for it. Let’s try.

Dave: One of the things I was just thinking [was], if I’m a parent and I have a teenage daughter or son who’s asking a lot of questions about faith, I would put on this podcast right now—we’re 15, 16 minutes in—and say, “Let’s listen to this interview, and let’s talk about each one of these.” It would be a great conversation for a parent to have with their son or daughter.

Ann: Oh, yes.

Dave: I’m listening to you—you could hit pause—

Ann: —good job putting it on the bottom shelf, too.

Dave: Yes. You talk about bottom shelf. Boom!

Justin: I’m trying. I’m trying to keep it bottom shelf.

Ann: Good job.

Dave: The Alternative Story of Science.

Justin: Again, this was a big theme of the New Atheists, and it was led by a lot of popular scientists like Richard Dawkins, saying, “The more we know about science, the less reason we have to believe in God.” I believe that is a false story. In fact, if you look at what’s been happening in science over the last century or so, the more we know about the universe and just what it took for us to be here in it, the more it looks like there’s something like a God behind it.

It does not make sense to say that the universe is just a happy accident, and the fact that we’re in it—the odds are just dramatically stacked against that. And I’ve been noticing more and more, again, of these secular thinkers asking similar questions. There’s one called Paul Davies, who’s a physicist at Arizona State University. He has been showing that, in all kinds of ways, our universe seemed to be set up to produce life.

For instance, there’s the fact that there was a so-called “Big Bang” at some point; that’s what our best physics seems to tell us, that at some point, everything physical sprang into existence, having not existed before. Now, that has a pretty big theological sort of implication to it. Where did it all come from? You have that. Then you have the fact that the universe, once it did suddenly appear from nowhere, had exactly the right fundamental constants, and the laws were precisely tuned to allow for life to develop.

It doesn’t look like it had to be the way it is, but it just so happens that things like the force of gravity are just right, so that if it had been ever so slightly stronger, everything would have collapsed back in on itself; if it had been ever so slightly weaker, everything would have just gone out too quickly for chemicals, atoms, [and] galaxies to develop. Yet that force of gravity was so incredibly, finely, sensitively balanced, it would allow for you and me to be here as conscious living creatures.

And then you have the fact that life somehow arose within this universe. Again, that was not a foregone conclusion when you look at the maps of what’s involved for a DNA to exist, a self-replicating molecule. Again, someone like Paul Davies will say, “No, something else is going on here. You can’t explain this in a purely materialistic way, just chance and time. That will not do it.”

Someone like Paul Davies is saying, “When I look at the way—the directionality in the universe,” he says, “going from nothing to something, from something to matter, from matter to life, from life to conscious life, from conscious life to conscious life that can reflect on itself, i.e., you and me, and that comprehends its place in the universe,” he says, “there’s a directionality there. It seems like there’s some kind of force behind the universe that’s meaning for us to go somewhere. This isn’t just a blind chance and luck.”

I think what Paul Davies, as a non-religious person, is describing there, is something that you find in the Bible called the “Logos.” It’s this idea of a God that speaks order into chaos; that speaks life from nothing. It’s the Word of Life. It’s Jesus. I think, when you see a brilliant scientist like Paul Davies doing the best science, overlapping with a concept that is right there at the beginning of John, you have something very exciting on your hands.

I think we’re starting to see science and faith coming together in all kinds of interesting and fruitful ways that absolutely run against that New Atheist idea that science has somehow banished God. I think science is opening up the God-question as never before.

Dave: Alright. We’re almost done. Mind, Meaning, and the Materialists.

Justin: This is the most philosophical of all the chapters, and it’s really talking about the fact that we live in an age where, again, the New Atheists told us that ultimately, we live in a mindless universe, a universe where everything is just a cause and effect, if you like. I think people have bought into this idea that we don’t really have much agency in the universe. We’re kind of a cog in a machine.

I think that’s the picture that’s often been painted by scientists and philosophers: that ultimately, you didn’t have much choice. Your genetics made you do it. You’re just a sort of victim of your circumstances. What’s interesting about that is, it’s very difficult to get a meaningful life if you believe, actually, everything was predetermined in that way. And that’s the strange contradiction at the heart of many of my Atheist and humanist friends.

Many of them are these determinists. They believe, actually, everything was determined. You have no choice over the things you decide, the morality you hold; whether you chose Oreos or toast for breakfast in the morning. The universe actually decided that for you a long time ago. You are simply just the outworking of a set of physical responses and reactions. But then they also say, “But you should treat your neighbor kindly, and it’s important that you think this about sexuality and not that.” Well, where did they get that from? Because if everything is determined—

Ann: —right.

Justin: —I have no choice about the way I treat another person. I have no choice about the beliefs I hold. They were just handed down to me. But it gets even worse because, if that’s all true, I had no choice about whether I believe in God or I’m an Atheist. Actually, if you’re an Atheist, you didn’t come to that belief on the basis of reason and logic and working it out. It was just this causally determined process that the universe handed down to you.

It’s a kind of vicious circle. If all my beliefs are simply foisted upon me by a purely physical process, how on earth can I have any confidence that they’re true? Suddenly, the whole thing collapses on itself. This idea that we live in a deterministic universe where none of us actually have any choice over the things we say, think, or believe, is, ultimately, self-defeating. We do not live in such a universe.

We live in a universe where you do have freedom, and actually, the only way to understand that idea of freedom is if there’s a God behind it. I believe there’s a very strong, philosophical case that the best way of understanding why we can do reasoning, think, why we’re moral creatures, and why it matters what we say, think and do, is because we have freedom. The only way you can make sense of that if there’s a God Who guarantees that freedom.

So, this is the alternative story of mind, meaning, and the materialist; that actually we need that kind of freedom in the universe. And again, lots of interesting thinkers are starting to think that way, pushing against this idea that we live in this mindless, purely material universe. They’re realizing that, actually, to make sense of love, meaning, morality, and reason itself, you have to have something like God behind the universe, and that’s my case.

Dave: And that leads you to the last, The Rebirth of Belief in God. You don’t need to say anything. You’ve just done it! [Laughter]

Ann: Yes.

Dave: You really have built a case for the rebirth of belief in God.

Ann: It’s interesting, too. I already have these people in my mind that I’m going to send this to.

Justin: Great!

Ann: I really do. I think all of us could think, “Oh, this will be so good for this friend, because they’re asking these questions.”

Justin: I do tell a few stories in the final chapter of people like Paul Kingsnorth, whom I mentioned earlier, and others, for whom, actually, they’ve discovered that we need something to believe in. We need a story. That’s what helps humans to flourish. We all need a story to live in, and the problem is, that other story that Atheism told, about this being a meaningless universe, took away our story.

That’s part of why we have a mental health crisis; people who don’t know who they are, what they’re supposed to believe in. We’ve seen a rise in anxiety, depression, [and] suicide, and I think it’s all tied into this idea that we’ve lost a story that makes sense of who we are. We’re trying lots of other stories, but they’re failing us.

I think, and I’ve seen it in the lives of so many of these interesting converts I speak about in this final chapter, we are seeing a rebirth of belief in God, because people are discovering, “We need a story. the Christian story is the best, the greatest, story ever told, and it can work for people today, because it’s true.

I think God is doing something in our culture to say, “You’ve tried everything else. It’s time to try this again.” Through these intellectuals, through these converts, and through these various bits of academia where I see a new story developing, we’re starting to see that rebirth of belief in God.

Shelby: “You’ve tried everything else, and it hasn’t worked. Come to me.” It reminds me of Jesus’s words, “If anyone is thirsty, come to Me and drink.” [John 7:37] Man, it seems like our culture is thirsty right now, huh? It’s so good and so exciting to see what God is doing in our world to draw people to Himself.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Justin Brierley on FamilyLife Today. Justin has written a book called The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers are Considering Christianity Again. It’s a fascinating book. You can go online to pick up your copy at FamilyLifeToday.com and click on “Today’s Resources.” Or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

You know, I just want to take a quick second to say “thank you” if you gave to our matching program back in December. I’m so grateful for your generosity because you are literally helping to make FamilyLife Today possible. And if you didn’t get a chance to give, I just wanted to say “thank you so much for listening.” We’re on to a new year, and I’m so excited to see what God is going to do through this ministry.

Coming up tomorrow, Brian Goins and Ed Uszynski, two content strategists here at FamilyLife who have worked on Art of Marriage, are going to come into the studio like they own the joint, and they’re going to flip the tables a bit and interview Dave and Ann Wilson, so the Wilsons can deliver some true wisdom for us. They’re giving us pearls tomorrow, so you don’t want to miss that.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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