Is Christianity Based on Fact or Fiction? – Program 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Gerstner, Dr. R.C. Sproul; ©1982
Are there good reasons for a thinking person to believe God actually exists, or must we simply take that as a matter of faith?


Tonight on the John Ankerberg Show you will hear two professors debate the question, “Does Christianity rest on fact or fantasy?” John’s first guest, Dr. John Gerstner, received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. From 1950 to 1980 Dr. Gerstner was professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and professor at large for the Ligonier Valley Study Center. He has authored more than 30 major theological articles and has written 18 books. He has also been a contributing editor of Christianity Today. John’s second guest, Dr. R. C. Sproul, received his doctorate from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently the adjunct professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi and president of Ligonier Valley Study Center. Dr. Sproul has written 10 books and numerous theological articles. And now to begin our debate would you welcome our host, John Ankerberg.

Program 1: Does Christianity Rest on Fact or Fantasy?
Does God Exist?

Dr. John Ankerberg: Gentlemen, we are so happy to have you here tonight. Dr. Gerstner and Dr. Sproul. And Dr. Sproul, we are very happy that you would enunciate for us many of the questions that people that are searching for God have. And Dr. Gerstner we are glad that you would be willing to answer those questions, or attempt to answer those to the best of your ability which is tremendous. And let’s not beat around the bush too much. Dr. Sproul, I would like you to start off with some of the questions that many of us would ask about belief in God.
Dr. R. C. Sproul: Dr. Gerstner, as a professional theologian and a church historian, you are as aware as most people are that in this day and age the consensus is almost total that if one is going to believe in God he must do it as an act of faith rather than a basis of rational evidence. But you, I understand, are taking an older position, trying to argue that reason compels the verdict that there does exist a personal God. Is that your position?
Dr. John Gerstner: That is true, Dr. Sproul. I don’t think that God appreciates the worship of fools. And when a person actually adores Him or professes to believe in Him simply because he wants to believe in Him without any evidence, I don’t believe that God is flattered by that.
Sproul: Alright, you are saying then that the mind has to come into play here and that there is cogent reason for a person in this day and age to believe in God. And I would like to get at it right away, Dr. Gerstner, go right for the jugular if I might, and that is this: If I had to ask you, push you to the wall and say, what is the one most compelling argument for the existence of God that you can think of, what would you say?
Gerstner: Without doubt, Dr. Sproul, the most compelling argument for the existence of God in my opinion is the fact that you cannot not think God.
Sproul: Well, that’s a double negative that’s hard for an American to take here.
Gerstner: That’s right.
Sproul: You cannot not think in terms of God?
Gerstner: That’s right, you must think of God.
Sproul: That it is intellectually necessary to think of God as existing. Is this the old Anselmic ontological argument coming at me?
Gerstner: That’s part of it, yes.
Sproul: Can you simplify it a little bit?
Gerstner: Well, I’d say when you think about being, which everybody does whether he’s a professional philosopher or not, you think of the being we know. It’s constantly coming into new shapes and forms and it screams for an existence. So there has to be a being which doesn’t change from which all being which does change comes. So that being has to be eternal. It has to be infinite. And obviously that’s what we mean by God. So I say you can’t think about being without thinking about God.
Sproul: Let me see if I’ve got it right. You are saying to me now that if anything exists now has “being,” as you say, you like that word “being,” something exists now that we have to account for its being, its power to exist. You are saying that there has to be some eternal power to bring this temporal power of being into existence. Have I got it? I don’t want to distort it.
Gerstner: Yes.
Sproul: Alright. Now, Dr. Gerstner, you are certainly aware of the fact that there are all kinds of alternate theories set forth before us today that say that we do not have to have an eternal self-existent “being” to account for temporal being that we have possibly, or an eternal world, for example. What would you say to that?
Gerstner: Well, eternal world… I don’t mind that, you see. It’s when people say there’s an option to eternal being. Now an eternal world would have to be the source of intelligence and have to be the source of purpose. It would have to be the source of morality and so on. And that “eternal world,” being the source of all things, is what we usually spell G-O-D.
Sproul: In other words we are just transferring the traditional attributes of God and giving it to the world. Is this what you are saying?
Gerstner: That’s right.
Sproul: Yes, but they are saying that it is matter itself that is eternal, Dr. Gerstner. And even these scientists are making a distinction between matter and some spiritual being that I presume you mean when you say about G-O-D. You are talking about a spiritual being.
Gerstner: Exactly, exactly.
Sproul: And yet some of us are arguing that matter itself has eternal power.
Gerstner: Yes, I have a way of saying that the trouble with matter is that is has a “mater” or a mother; that is, that “matter” explains nothing. It’s just undifferentiated being. As soon as you talk about that entity (whichever it is), that’s a source of all rationality and morality and purpose of everything which matter alone, of course, doesn’t do, you are talking about G-O-D.
Sproul: Okay, I know a little bit about these things. I’ve heard the cosmological argument as it’s stated many different ways. And what I hear you saying is that the bottom line simply is that if something exists now, something has to have the power of being to account for it. Alright, let me surrender my critique at that point. I can agree with you that there has to be some suitable explanation. But why does that “being” (this is what I am getting at with this “matter” thing) have to be of a personal sort, Dr. Gerstner? I mean, I am certainly not going to be in communion and worship with cosmic dust or things like that. Why a personal God?
Gerstner: Well, because when you have morality, you have purpose and you have intelligence. That adds up to a personal being.
Sproul: But that’s the point that we’re getting at again and again and again. Men like B. F. Skinner are saying that we have to come of age and recognize the fact that those very ideas that you are saying are illusions, personality, the self, morality. Aren’t we living in a time where we’ve gone beyond that, that we are just simply a field of electrons or chemical responses to material activity, that there’s no such thing as real morality? But you want to insist that we do have it.
Gerstner: That reminds me, when you refer about Skinner referring that way and so on, of Pavlov performing his experiments with his dogs, you know; and somebody watching it and passing out in fear and somebody resuscitating her and saying to her, “When the dogs start experimenting on Pavlov, that’s when you have to be worried.” Not this other kind of situation. Skinner can say what he pleases, but you still have to account for intelligence and morality and purpose. And you don’t do it by talking about matter or mere stimuli or responses to certain kinds of conditions.
Sproul: Why not? Why can’t we do it that way?
Gerstner: Because, as I say, we’re immediately aware. You, for example. You’re asking me a question right now. So, it goes through your head that you ought to ask me a question because you have that idea in your mind. And the way by which you want to articulate it is in the form of a question. You come with a question. The question just doesn’t emerge out of that statue I see in front of me. It’s the product of a thinking brain, articulating an idea to another, presumably, hopefully, thinking brain.
Sproul: It certainly doesn’t seem like that, I grant that. But suppose that’s in fact the case?
Gerstner: Well, you say it’s in fact the case. What you’re doing is saying, “It’s in fact the case that a person with an intelligence and a purpose, and incidentally a morality as well, sees fit to communicate to another person, who’s capable of thinking of purpose and morality and meaning and such things as that.” If you’re going to call that a “thing,” go ahead. But the usual way of talking about beings like that is persons.
Sproul: Dr. Gerstner, what I heard you saying to me is that you can’t have personality impersonally and that sort of thing. Okay. Let me grant for the sake of argument that I am a person and you’re a person and we have real thoughts. How does that prove a personal God?
Gerstner: Because whatever we have – thoughts and purposes and moral feelings and so on – we can’t conceive of those things existing except in what we call “personality,” which puts the whole package together wrapped up in a thing called “consciousness.” See, if you ever can talk about that and aren’t talking about persons, you and I realize it with respect to each other, why wouldn’t we realize it about the author of the universe who shows evidence of morality and purpose and intelligence all over in the things he has made? That’s all I’m saying.
Sproul: Yes, but there’s one thing that I don’t see in your concept of God. You see, Aristotle had the “Unmoved Mover and all of that, but he left it in that he [the Unmoved Mover] was conscious of himself and impersonally related to us. See, maybe God shows evidence indirectly of morality from the laws of nature, and intelligence and design, but I don’t hear any words from him. When I deal with persons, Dr. Gerstner, I communicate. I can have discourse with a personal being, but God is silent. I speak to the heavens, I hear nothing. I look up in the sky and no skywriting, nothing. How do you know that God speaks?
Gerstner: There must be something wrong with your hearing, Dr. Sproul. There’s a scriptural statement that “The heavens declare the glory of God.” [Psa. 19:1] They shout it. You can’t look at the things that are made without those visible things manifesting and saying, “Dr. Sproul, I’m the product of an invisible intelligence.” I suggest you tune in a little bit closer.
Sproul: I don’t want to be rude here, Dr. Gerstner. Let me interrupt you for a second because I detect here a violation of an informal principle of logic, of equivocation. You’re using that term “hearing” equivocally. You’re using it in a metaphorical sense. You say there’s something wrong with my hearing because I can’t read this evidence. But I said to you at the beginning, “Yes, I grant there is evidence of an indirect sort,” and you’re using “hearing” in an indirect way. But I’m saying audibly, I don’t hear anything. You say that God speaks but the only way He speaks is by leaving little clues that I have to hunt for behind the bushes and under the leaves and with the spade.
Gerstner: That’s right, if you want to put it that way. Change the metaphor, the world is one grand “who done it,” and God has planted clues everywhere.
Sproul: Alright, so we have a very intelligent, eternal, existent being who’s a deaf mute.
Gerstner: Which what?
Sproul: He’s a deaf mute. He can speak by leaving clues but He can’t speak with His mouth. He can’t tell me words.
Gerstner: Well, now He can, and since you don’t seem to be able to hear Him unless He speaks that way, I better mention the fact that, to use an expression of John Calvin, “He has lisped.” He has spoken baby talk so that people can hear Him in Holy Scripture. So far we’ve been talking about the way He speaks and the things He has made. And you apparently are not so tuned to that, so let me point you to the Bible which is indeed the Word of God.
Sproul: I knew it! I knew we were going to get there. I knew that you were going to claim the Bible. Alright, so, you’re saying that God speaks in the Bible.
Gerstner: Amen.
Sproul: You’re not suggesting that He wrote it by His own hand.
Gerstner: I’m not suggesting, oh no, not by His own hand. He doesn’t happen to have a hand otherwise He would have.
Sproul: Alright, Dr. Gerstner, that was clever. But let’s get down to the real substance of the matter. He didn’t write it with His own hand, and the book says that it’s the Word of God. But there are plenty of other books that make the same claim, but they are in flat contradiction to the teachings of that book that you call the Bible. How do you know that’s the Word of God?
Gerstner: How do I know the Bible is the Word of God and all these other books are not the Word of God?
Sproul: Yes.
Gerstner: Okay. Well, let me see if I can kill two birds with one stone. If I can satisfy you that the Bible is the Word of God and it says there is no other Word of God, that will take care of all the others, right?
Sproul: Well, that goes without saying. If it’s the Word of God and the Word of God says the others are not the Word of God, QED, I go with it.
Gerstner: Okay. So, you want me to tell you why…
Sproul: All you have to do is show me that it is in fact the Word of God. Can you show me that?
Gerstner: Oh, it is that but I don’t expect you to believe me just because I say it, and I’d be deeply disappointed with you if you did.
Sproul: Well, I’m not going to. I’m not just accepting it just on the face of your testimony. I want to hear your case for the fact that the Bible is the Word of God.
Gerstner: Okay. My case is basically this. But let me remind you first of all, we’re agreeing now from the things that are made that there is a God, a personal God, a moral God, an intelligent God, but we haven’t heard Him speak in words that Dr. Sproul can hear. He wants to hear a much clearer voice from God, and I say it’s in the Bible. So, if we are going to believe that that Bible is the Word of God, we’ve got to have some evidence that the God who has made everything and reveals Himself through the things He has made, proves that He is the author of that book and no one else. Is that agreed? I haven’t proven your point yet, I realize that. I’m just saying…
Sproul: You’re just repeating to me what I asked for. Okay, go ahead.
Gerstner: Now, it would have to be a doing on His part that only He could do. And what I propose, Dr. Sproul, is this: The one person who could control and manipulate nature would be its author. Are we agreed on that?
Sproul: The one person….
Gerstner: The one person who could control and manipulate the creation would be the Creator. Are we agreed on that?
Sproul: I’ll say that the Creator, God, has power over His creation, I’ll grant you that.
Gerstner: And He would be the only one. Now, if, therefore, a human being appears with a power over nature, for example, he could only get it from God. Is that agreed to? I don’t want you backing off after we get to the bottom line here.
Sproul: It depends on what kind of power over nature that you’re talking about, Dr. Gerstner.
Gerstner: Let’s say a power that only God could have.
Sproul: Could you give me an example of what you’re talking about, power; because we have power over nature. We agree, don’t we? We build planes; they fly through the air. We can swing an ax and do that sort of thing. That’s power over nature. You’re talking about what we usually call supernatural powers, an extraordinary kind of power over nature that you’re saying is a sort that only God can do.
Gerstner: That’s what I mean. That’s right.
Sproul: Give me an example.
Gerstner: Okay. Let’s take Jesus of Nazareth. I think you will grant that the four Gospel records which tell about Jesus are historically authentic documents. If not, you can question that later on. But in the picture of Jesus of Nazareth which we get in those Gospels He is clearly a person who commands the waves and they are still; who heals instantly; who raises the dead and who Himself commands the power only God can.
Sproul: I’ll grant this much: that He is presented and portrayed as one who does those things.
Gerstner: Right. Exactly, you do grant that.
Sproul: And you’re saying those things are an example of what I’m asking for of things that only God can do.
Gerstner: I would say so, wouldn’t you?
Sproul: I would grant that, walking on the water to saying “Be quiet” to the sea. I would be impressed if I saw that. I would grant you that.
Ankerberg: Alright, gentlemen, we have a question for you.
Audience: Gentlemen, Dr. Gerstner particularly, the dialogue at this point is getting around to the subject of miracles. History records many miracles; but how do you see, Dr. Gerstner, the miracles, as far as the biblical accounts, how or why are they different from other recorded miracles in history?
Gerstner: Well, let me see if I can say that briefly. Shall we agree at this point that there are, I’ll focus on the life of Christ, that Christ did still the waves and that He did raise the dead and He rose from the dead? And you’re asking me the question how are those miracles any different from any other claimed miracles? That, as I take it, is the question.
Ankerberg: That’s correct.
Gerstner: Now, this is the difference, basically. If those miracles are bona fide, and as I say we have contemporary sources that Jesus of Nazareth did those things, then as we say with Nicodemus, “We know you’re a teacher sent from God. No one does these things you do [these miracles you do] except God be with him.” [John 3:2] And then Christ reveals Himself as the Son of God, the Bible as the Word of God, and the miracles were to attest that revelation. Then, you’re prepared for the fact that those miraculous attestations of the revealer, of the revelation of the Holy Scripture, would have served their function and would silently disappear from the scene. So the first thing I’m saying, by no means the last thing, is that since miracles are used in the Bible to certify messengers so that you can get the revelation, once the revelation is over, you’re not surprised that even before the New Testament is completed miracles have disappeared quietly from the scene. And you would well expect that any alleged miracles later would be indeed special things, unusual events, but not events that I’m talking about with Dr. Sproul that could only be accounted for by an immediate activity of God.
Sproul: Dr. Gerstner, let me jump in here with that one, because what I hear you saying is a standard scientific principle that we try to understand the unknown in light of the known. What I hear you saying is that the most-attested miracles are the miracles of Jesus and that they authenticate Him as an agent of revelation, as an authoritative expression of the voice of God. And that another test of another alleged miracle is if that alleged miracle here conveys information that is contradictory to the first set, then it’s got to go and be considered fraudulent. Alright, we understand that. Okay? But the point I’m still struggling with is, I detect here a form of argumentation, Dr. Gerstner, that we call circular reasoning. You’re telling me that we know that the Bible is the Word of God because it is certified by miracles. But the only reason we know about the miracles is in the Bible. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Aren’t we here in a vicious circle?
Gerstner: I couldn’t agree with you more that if it is a circle it’s vicious. There’s no such thing as a benign circle. If I were guilty of that kind of reasoning, I would know my reasoning was fallacious. But I plead innocent to the charge. This is the way we actually proceed. As we mentioned, and you and I were talking before our friend came in on that conversation, we recognize that the four Gospels are historical accounts by contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth.
Sproul: Alright then, we recognize that they are the historical sort.
Gerstner: We’re not claiming any inspiration for them. I’m not saying at that juncture that they are inspired Scripture. Is that clear?
Sproul: What are you saying about them?
Gerstner: I’m saying they are reliable, historical sources of information.
Sproul: How reliable?
Gerstner: So reliable that we know that Matthew wrote Matthew and Mark wrote Mark and so on.
Sproul: Okay, we’re going to have to come back to that point but let me go on for the sake of your point.
Gerstner: Alright. So we start on the basis of basically historically reliable information. From that we learn of Jesus of Nazareth who did indeed perform miracles, whose life was a blaze of miracles. Once His credit as a communicator of revelation is established by these miracles which only God could have enabled Him to do, then when He tells us that the Bible is the Word of God we’re at an entirely different level. We have not started with an inspired Word and then moved to miracles and then certified miracles by the inspired Word and the inspired Word by miracles. We start with a reliable source of information. We learn about the miracles which certify the Bible. There is no circularity there, Dr. Sproul.
Sproul: I think what you’re saying is that we know generally of Jesus’ reliability…
Gerstner: Yes, yes.
Sproul: And we find that Jesus is saying that that source that told us about Him is more than generally reliable. It is as simple as that?
Gerstner: That’s right. Once He tells us that that’s the Word of God as an accredited messenger of God…
Sproul: So you’re moving in a line there rather than a circle and it progresses.
Gerstner: Right. That’s right.
Sproul: Okay. But there’s a critical point in that progression and that is even general reliability, Dr. Gerstner. I know you’re not bothered by that, but there are countless people out here who wonder whether or not after this avalanche of criticism that has come with respect to the New Testament records and whether or not we can even claim for them general reliability. I grant that if they were good well-attested historical sources that showed me enough of Jesus that I would bow before his testimony. But can we even know that?
Gerstner: The fact of the matter, you know, is that most of the radicals today are quite conservative as far as those sources are concerned.
Ankerberg: Alright. We’ll pick this up. You’re starting to question the documents of the New Testament. We’ll pick that up next week.

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