In September I wrote about our tendency to justify the religious traditions and belief system we find ourselves in.  Things we would not believe, and evidence we would not be persuaded by if we were on the outside looking in, somehow seem so believable and persuasive when we are on the inside looking out.  As someone once said, the easiest person to deceive is yourself.  I think all of us are guilty of doing so in one matter or another.  There are strong social and emotional motivations for justifying the beliefs we were raised with, or the beliefs those in our social community collectively hold.  The cost of denying them is often too high to assess them as objectively as we should, and might otherwise do if we belonged to a different tradition.

I was reflecting further on this today as I was reading the attempts of a New Testament scholar to justify monism (the belief that man is only physical—he has no soul) from the Bible.  Such a position is so evidently contradicted by Scripture as to be near-laughable.  “How could anyone believe such a thing?,” I thought to myself.  Then I began to reflect on other attempts to justify positions that so manifestly contradict Biblical teaching.  There are those who attempt to argue that the Bible is neutral toward, or even positive about homosexuality.  Others argue that Jesus is a created deity.  The list could go on.

Why do people believe the things they do, and why are they persuaded by (what appears to most outsiders) such flimsy evidence?  As I’ve already said, two such reasons are social and emotional.  Another reason may be financial.  Sometimes careers and reputations are on the line.  If changing your belief would result in the loss of your livelihood, you are more likely to persuade yourself that your current belief is right even if it is not warranted by the evidence.  Or if someone has spent their life advancing certain ideas, and have a reputation for doing so, they may be reluctant to admit they were wrong, preferring to continue in their belief even if it’s not well-evidenced.

This happens in science quite a bit.  Someone comes up with a theory, spends years working to prove it, only to find the evidence is running in another direction.  Do they immediately jump ship and follow the evidence to where it’s leading?  Not usually.  Instead, they try to justify their theory using every ad hoc explanation they can think of.  Too much time, money, and reputation has been invested to just abandon the ship.  Like a captain, sometimes they’ll go down with their ship, maintaining their theory until their dying day.  Others will jump ship only when the evidence against them is so strong that their livelihood and reputation will be ruined if they don’t.

The same can be true of those in ministry.  If you have pastored a church for 25 years, and you have always taught X (and did so with an extra pounding of the pulpit), it can be very difficult 25 years later to admit to those following your leadership that you have been wrong all those years.  There is a fear that those in the congregation will lose respect for you, begin to question other teachings, doubt your leadership abilities, or worst of all, leave.

In the way of a personal example, I believe the rapture will occur at the 2nd coming of Christ following the tribulation.  At one time, however, I was a pre-tribber.  I cut my spiritual teeth on eschatology, and that eschatology was thoroughly pre-trib.  Not only did I think the Bible taught a pre-trib rapture; I wanted a pre-trib rapture to be true.  I didn’t want to go through the tribulation.  My good friend William Arnold, however, became convinced that the rapture would take place after the tribulation, and sought to persuade me of this.  We had many conversations on the topic.  Slowly but surely all of my arguments for the pre-trib rapture disappeared, and the arguments for a post-trib rapture mounted.  But I wasn’t going down without a fight!  So long as I had one or two arguments for a pre-trib rapture remaining in my holster, I was holding on (for dear life)!  And hold on I did, for approximately a year.  I still remember the day when my last major argument for a pre-trib rapture was shown to be false.  I yelled out, “This sucks!  I am post-trib!”  Reluctantly, I followed the evidence where it led.  My commitment to truth prevailed over my historical, emotional, and social attachment to the pre-trib doctrine, but it wasn’t easy for me to let those considerations go.  I relate my story because I think it is typical of human beings, and illustrates just how difficult it can be to persuade people to change their minds once they’ve made them up.

Why was it that I was so adamant on the pre-trib doctrine?  Part of it was the fact that I was saved in a church that believed and taught it (social).  Furthermore, the belief was emotionally significant to me.  Finally, I was given reasons to believe it was true.  The combination of these three elements made it very difficult for me to give up the belief.

Based on my own experience, as well as observations I have made about others’, I have formed a hypothesis.  The first part of my hypothesis is that people are less objective when relationships, emotions, ego, and finances are tied to a belief.  Getting me to change my views on global warming would be a lot easier than getting Al Gore to change his, because he has more at stake in the game than I do (money, reputation, relationships).

The second part of my hypothesis is that once people have become persuaded by a certain belief, it is very difficult to change that belief.  In essence, whatever view you were first persuaded of, you’ll usually retain and defend it to the grave.  The emphasis here is on persuasion, and this requires rational evidence.  If my belief in pre-trib was only predicated on the fact that my church believed it (social reasons), or that I had an emotional affinity for the belief, it probably would have been much easier for my friend to convince me of the post-trib position.  But because I had studied out the pre-trib doctrine, and learned reasons for thinking it to be true, my belief was fortified.  The lesson to be learned here is that in general, the first position for which you find good reasons to believe it, will generally be the position you’ll always hold come hell or high water.

If my observations and hypothesis is true, this has significant implications for the church.  For those who know me or have followed this blog for any length of time will know, my number one complaint about the church is the lack of teaching.  We often do a good job of proclaiming what it is that we should believe, but a horrible job explaining why we should believe those things.  We are told God exists, the Bible is reliable, abortion is wrong, and Jesus is the only way, but little or no justification is offered on behalf of those beliefs.  Children in particular, will usually accept such beliefs as true, if for no other reason because they trust the authorities who are assuring them of their truth.  Of course, social pressure helps too!

But what happens when little Johnnie goes off to college and hears reasons to believe God doesn’t exist, the Bible is not reliable, abortion is good, and Jesus is just one way among many?  I’ll tell you what happens: Johnnie will struggle.  Johnnie may even go through a crisis of faith.  Some kids manage to hold on to their faith, but do so only with a nagging sense of doubt and/or cognitive dissonance.  Other kids will just abandon their Christian faith on the basis of the evidence, and it won’t be that hard.  Why?  Because they never had good reason to believe Christianity was true in the first place.  But now, for the first time ever, they are being provided reasons to believe X, and those reasons point away from their childhood faith.

Remember, whatever view you are first persuaded of is usually the view you’ll retain and defend to the grave.  In this case, the first view Johnnie was actually persuaded of was a non-Christian view.  Once he has been persuaded away from the faith, it will be very difficult to ever convince him to come back to his Christian faith.  Even if apologetic arguments are presented to him that serve to challenge his new belief and provide evidence for Christianity, they will be viewed with suspicion.  In his eyes the established position is the anti-Christian one.  All other views are would-be competitors, and must prove themselves worthy to compete.  In his mind, the anti-Christian view will always have a leg-up on the competition.  Christianity is the under-dog.

I’ve seen this play out in the lives of people I know.  They were never provided with reasons to believe the Christian faith or certain Christian doctrines.  Then, one day their beliefs are challenged, and they find themselves dumb-founded.  While they don’t have any reasons to think their beliefs are true, the non-Christian has both reasons to think Christianity is wrong, as well as reasons to think their non-Christian beliefs are right.  Who are you going to believe?  Those who never provided you with evidence, or those who do?

The lesson is this: don’t let non-Christians get to our kids first.  It ought not be the case that our kids hear the arguments against the reliability of the Bible before they hear the arguments for its reliability from the church!  The time to teach kids why abortion is wrong is not after they get pregnant, but before they get pregnant.  The time to teach our kids the evidence for God’s existence is not after they are caused to question it, but before they are caused to question it.  We must be pro-active in this fight, inoculating our kids before they are exposed to error.  Doing so may prevent them from falling prey to its venom.  It’s much easier to prevent sickness than it is to cure those who are sick.  Once they are sick, the risk of fatality increases exponentially.  Likewise, it is much easier to prevent our kids from being taken in my false ideas than it is to convince them of the veracity of Christian truth claims after they’ve been persuaded of a different view.

I know, people will say that kids don’t want to hear about “all this stuff.”  Kids want to have fun.  I have to respectfully disagree.  Some of the most profound questions I get asked come from kids, not adults.  Kids are thinkers, and they are thinking about God and truth.  Kids are also the biggest targets of anti-Christian propaganda.  No one needs Christian apologetics more than our kids, and no one wants it more than our kids.  They are starving for knowledge, and when it is provided for them in the right manner, they’ll eat it up!  If kids people tend to stick with the first belief they find to be well-evidenced, let’s make sure it’s Christianity.