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EPISODE 49: Plato Wasn't Enough
Professor Craig Keener became a convinced atheist at an early age. When philosophy left him without solid answers, his intellectual curiosity led him to consider the possibility of God.
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist but who became a Christian against all odds.
We all believe what we believe because we believe it to be true. We believe that our beliefs are true because they match up with reality, the way things really are in the world, and we are usually pretty convinced that we’re right, or else we wouldn’t believe it, right?
Sometimes we run into people who seem to have exceptionally strong, unwavering confidence for their beliefs. In fact, they have given their lives towards deep understanding, living out and sharing their beliefs with others, but what seems even more extraordinary is that they completely shifted their way of seeing the world and perceiving reality to a nearly polar opposite view from where they once were. There was something that was profoundly convincing enough for them to change. This begs the question: What was the information, events, reflections, or experiences that opened the door for them to another whole different set of beliefs? How do we change the basic way we think about the world around us, the way we think about ourselves? Those are huge questions.
Usually, there has to be something we come to learn or experience that seems to conflict with what we know, that challenges our beliefs. We begin to question ourselves and our knowledge and perhaps come open to another possibility of what is true and real, but that also takes a bit of humility, of admitting that we might be wrong, and more often than not, that’s not an easy thing to do. There are those thinkers who are seriously curious seekers who want to find answers, even if they don’t seem to line up with their own beliefs at the time. They want to find the truth no matter where it is to be found and what it is, as long as it is true.
Former atheist Dr. Craig Keener is one of those with a brilliant mind who desired to discover what was true about reality. Although he once held a belief in strict naturalism that only the natural world exists, he came to believe that reality consists of so much more, and he’s now a professor, prolific writer, and scholar in biblical studies. How did that shift happen? I hope you’ll come to listen to his story today. You might also want to stay to the end to hear his advice to curious skeptics on searching for God and truth, as well as advice to Christians on how best to engage with those who don’t believe.
Welcome to Side B Stories, Craig. It’s so great to have you!
It’s a privilege to be with you, Jana.
Wonderful. As we’re getting started, can you tell the listeners a little bit about who you are?
I’m a professor of biblical studies. I did my PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University. I’ve authored somewhere over 30 books now. One of them is 4,500 pages. It cites over 45,000 references from ancient sources outside the Bible. So that’s my main focus of research, putting the Bible in its historical context in antiquity. My wife is Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener. She is from Congo in central Africa, and she did her PhD in France.
let’s go back to the very beginning, and why don’t you tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Tell me, Craig, about your home. Was there any religious belief in your home? Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in the United States or what area of the country? Did the culture affect any of your beliefs. Talk with me about your early childhood.
Sure. I grew up in suburban northern Ohio, and my parents were very respectable socially and morally and so on, but there was no religious belief talked about in our home. We didn’t attend church or any other religious institution. So when I would study religion, I was studying it from the encyclopedia or things like that, studying religions, studying philosophies, and so on. Just as a matter of interest. Especially, I liked ancient Greek philosophy and so forth. But I think at least by the age of nine…
I didn’t believe in life after death, because I remember having a conversation with a family member, and they said, “No, we don’t believe in that, either.” And I’m pretty sure I was an atheist by then. I was purely naturalistic, materialistic, empirically oriented, and I think by the time of age eleven or twelve, I remember having a conversation with my grandmother, who was a Christian, Catholic, and I was telling her I didn’t believe in God, and she said, “Well, what about a first cause?” And I said, “No.” I just went on and postulated infinite regression and said, “It could go way, way back, just infinitely in time.” I didn’t know yet that that doesn’t work in terms of the laws of physics and relativity and so on, but I was eleven. So, as time went on, though, I began to question some of my certainties.
First of all, I want to say I’m incredibly impressed, at the age of nine and eleven, that you were thinking in philosophical terms, that you must’ve been a very erudite child, an avid reader, a thinker. I presume, from the very beginning, you told us that you have a prolific library of books that you’ve authored. You’re an extensive researcher. So I imagine your curiosity about life and reality started when you were very young. I presume that you were fostered in that way.
So, when you were reading, you said you were reading philosophy and about religions. Was this some kind of investigation, even as a child, that you were pursuing on your own? Or was it at the impetus of any of your teachers or your parents? What were you looking for as you were searching, even at such an early age, through the religions?
My mother encouraged whatever kind of intellectual pursuits I would have, so it was just kind of what I was interested in. And I was certainly interested in everything Greek, pretty much Roman, most things from ancient Mediterranean or Near Eastern antiquity, apart from the Bible. But Plato was really kind of a turning point for me. When I got to be about age thirteen, and reading Plato’s discussions of the immortality of the soul, I began to wonder. I didn’t think his arguments for the immortality of the soul were convincing, but his questions about it really got me thinking. I was also reading a book about that time, a mathematical discussion of infinity, and thinking about, “You know, forever is a long time.” And also I used to visit a medical lab where somebody had come and spoken at our high school, and so I would tag along with him sometimes and go visit the medical lab, and one day, they wheeled a corpse by, and I was like, “What’s that?” “It’s a dead body.” And it was something I couldn’t get away from, the reality of the questions.
So when you say the reality of the questions, now, again, just to reiterate, at this point, you had declared yourself an atheist, and you said you believed in naturalism. If you could… I know that there’s a lot of definitions of atheism floating around. At that time, how would you have described what you believed atheism to be and what naturalism to be?
Yeah. My naturalism, by the time I was thirteen, was getting mixed up with platonic idealism, which isn’t exactly naturalism, so I’m holding these different epistemologies, pure empiricism on the one hand, which can’t be proven empirically, and platonic idealism on the other, which definitely can’t be proved empirically, so I was inconsistent, admittedly.
You were reading about all of these Greek mythologies, but you didn’t believe that any god existed, any being outside of the natural world existed. I presume that you believed that all of those things, all of those gods, or the one God, were all mythological.
I didn’t rule out the possibility of spirits, of spirit beings. I just didn’t believe in a Creator God. I thought I could explain everything without recourse to that hypothesis. Now, given what I know now and actually given what we know a lot more from physics now than was even known back then, my views were not really very well founded, but it’s where I was.
And philosophically speaking, you were convinced, then, I guess, in platonic idealism or the forms? Or some form of reality without a personal being outside of the universe?
I wouldn’t say I was completely convinced by Plato. It just seemed like the best logic I knew of at that point. And I was still looking for something more. But as far as God, my thinking was, “Look, most people are stupid.” Talk about intellectual snob. Whether I was intellectual or not might be debated, but I certainly was a snob. “Most people are stupid. 80%,” and back then, I think it was about 80%, of the people in this country claim to be Christian, and they don’t even live like they believe it. Because if I really believed that I owed my existence to a God, I would give everything to that God. But they don’t live like they believe it, so why would I take it seriously when even the people who claim to be Christians don’t?” And I wasn’t distinguishing between the really serious ones and the pseudo ones, or today we might say the really nasty ones and the nice ones or whatever. I just threw everybody in the same boat.
Obviously, you didn’t have a high view of Christians or perhaps Christianity, but what did you think religion was? As an atheist, what did you consider religion to be?
I don’t know that I would’ve used the language of an opiate for the masses, but that’s probably pretty much what I thought of it, just people are scared to die, and they’re scared to be off on their own in an empty universe, and they just comfort themselves with a fantasy is how I would have viewed it at that point.
So it was wishful thinking for, as you say, the ignorant I suppose and perhaps the weak. Again, you were reading Plato. You were finding some answers not satisfying. What were the questions that you were asking that you found that were leaving you still wanting more?
What I couldn’t explain just based on my pure naturalism was my own consciousness, my own… I’m inside me. How did I get to be? And it can’t be from me, myself, because I, in contrast to what Plato said about the preexistence of a soul… That’s one thing I wasn’t persuaded on, and so if a soul wasn’t preexistent… I had a beginning, and if I had a beginning, then I was certainly going to have an ending. And it didn’t make sense to me. Why am I perceiving the universe from this standpoint as a self? As a personal being? And I’m perceiving other people as personal beings, but they’re outside of me. I didn’t cause them. Maybe I’m hallucinating them. I did consider that, based on Plato’s idea, don’t trust the world of senses, but then I was in a quandary because I also realized, “Okay, the book that I read. When I’m reading Plato, I’m reading it through my sense knowledge.” I really went to town with this stuff.
But I began to realize, if there is a source of my consciousness, my existence, and it’s not me, and there’s just an infinitesimal chance of my own personal existence, with the genetics and the environment and everything coming together, all the marriages and unions all the way back for me to exist as me, I was like, “I don’t know how that works unless maybe I’m just hallucinating my finite existence.” Or… The one hope I had was, “If there’s something infinite, if I could tap into that, but how would I get to something infinite when I’m finite? And if there is a God,” so I suppose by this point I was starting to drift towards agnosticism, but as far as everybody knew, I was an atheist. I just made fun of Christians.
Well, there were a few Christians I didn’t make fun because I could tell they were really serious. I respected even. A few that I thought were really, really serious, even though I didn’t agree with them. I just kind of avoided talking about religion with them. But I started thinking, “Okay, if there’s an infinite being, that would be great, because the infinite being could obviously confer immortality through union with itself somehow, but why would the infinite being care about me?” I was not only finite, but if the infinite being cared about me, it would have to be because the infinite being was also loving, and why would an infinite loving being care about me, because I clearly wasn’t loving. I just didn’t want to die and stop existing. I didn’t care about this being. I didn’t care about anybody else’s immortality at that point. Well, not very much. So my big thing was, “How can I have it?”
And that’s where I was left. I didn’t have a solution to it, and it seemed to me like the possibility of a loving, infinite being would be the best of all possible scenarios, and yet I had no reason to believe it. It would just be maybe wishful thinking.
So then you would be back in that place, in a sense, that you had accused the Christians of, of somewhat inventing a god that they wanted to be true. So in some ways your grandmother’s question of first cause came back, but kind of in a different way, in a more philosophical, existential way, rather than first cause of the universe, per se. But in terms of transcendence, though, it had to be a personal agency, right? A personal agent. And had to be infinite. I mean, the concepts that you’re speaking of, again, are pretty deep, especially for, it sounds like, a teenager at this time. You’re really considering your own mortality. You’re considering your lack of immortality, as it were. Your sense of personhood and how that could continue or not in time, based upon whether you’re physical only or if there’s something more to you. Those are really big questions. And of course, like you say, who would create a being like you or me? Unless it was out of love.
And those are, again, very deep and contemplative things, and so those deep questions and being honest with yourself, I guess, about them, those were the catalysts for you to continue forward, I suppose, in trying to resolve what seems to be a real existential point of tension. And intellectual point of tension. There’s a dissonance, whether it’s cognitive or emotional or existential, there are some issues that you needed to be resolved. And I’m sitting here wondering how is it that a thirteen year old could solve those kinds of issues, wanting there to be a god but, in a way, not being able to solve those grand issues in any kind of a direct way. So I’m curious, Craig. Walk us forward. Because I want to know how you found some answers.
Yeah. I thought I could explain the universe purely naturalistically. Now I know I was wrong, but that’s what I thought. And I thought may be platonic idealism might explain my own existence as a sentient being, but platonic idealism couldn’t explain the material universe, and I couldn’t explain from pure naturalism my own existence as a sentient being or the meaning of it, at least. And so that’s where I kind of left it. I was really getting a commitment to platonic idealism, but as I would walk to school, I would still look both ways for cars when I crossed the street and still, even if, okay, the sense world is purely my hallucination, just in case, I’d better play by the rules. Just in case.
But I didn’t really have a solution. That’s kind of where I left it. Except I started saying, “If there’s a god or a goddess, a he or a she or an it or whatever, if there’s something out there, and you do happen to love and care about people, please show me.”
So it was a humble prayer. It was like, “I don’t know how to solve this,” so you just prayed to whoever?
Yeah. Yeah. Just desperately. And every once in a while, I’d repeat that, just that cry to whoever, if anybody was listening, meanwhile putting up the front like I’m convinced of atheism, but by this point, just in case… I gave Christianity only about a 2% chance, so I guess I wasn’t 100% atheist, but Christianity seemed to me to be the least plausible of all things, but I didn’t want to stake eternity on even a 2% chance, and eternity is a long time. I didn’t know about Pascal’s wager, but if I had, I would have said, “Yeah, that’s probably right.” Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and one of his contemplations, his pensées, was if there is a God and you live like there isn’t one, you’ll be really sorry. But if there isn’t a god, and you live like there’s one, well, really not too much harm done. You don’t stake all of eternity on your mistake if you make the mistake the wrong way there.
But what eventually happened was not the kind of evidence that I was wanting. I wanted empirical evidence, or archaeological evidence. There actually is some of that, but I didn’t know. I wanted somebody to show me in a way that satisfied my intellect, which is a good thing for that to be done, and I want to provide evidence for people in that way today. But that’s not what happened in my case. Because God was going to welcome me, but He wouldn’t welcome me with my idols, and I idolized my intellect, and God has given us so much evidence, but God is not obligated to jump through our hoops. We don’t get to decide what kind of evidence He’s going to give us. We have to look where He’s offered the evidence, and He’s offered plenty of it, but we say, “Well, God you have to do it this way or I’m not going to believe you.” Well, it’s our tough luck.
So I was walking home from school one day, and it was after Latin class, and a couple of very conservative Christians dressed in black suits with ties, and they could’ve been anything, but anyway, they stopped me on the street with one of my friends, and they said, “Do you know where you’re going to go when you die?” And I figured, “Okay, these are probably religious people. I’m just going to humor them.” I said, “Probably either heaven or hell,” and I laughed, but they didn’t laugh. They were very serious. So they started in explaining how I could be sure I could go to heaven when I died because Jesus died for me and Jesus rose again. Well, when I saw they were serious, actually this was a concern of mine, but they were just talking to me from the Bible. And I said, “Look, you guys, I don’t believe in the Bible. I’m an atheist. Do you have any other evidence?” And they looked at each other like, “Uh oh,” and I realized they don’t have anything else to give me. So I said, “Look, if there’s a God, where did the dinosaur bones come from?” You know, if you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer. They weren’t trained in paleontology. They weren’t trained in apologetics either. They just… All they knew was… They just knew Jesus died and rose again and that’s how you could be saved.
So I argued with them for, like, 45 minutes, but when it got to that point, they said that the devil put them there to deceive us. I said, “Okay, guys. I’m going to see you later,” and I started walking off. So, okay, they didn’t know paleontology, they didn’t know apologetics, but they did know the heart of what makes us right with God, what Jesus did for us. We couldn’t bring ourselves to God. That was something I already figured out philosophically.
Well, God was now reaching out to me through this message, and I walked off from them, but there was a Presence there that was so strong that hadn’t been there when I made fun of Christians or when I read about different religions or read about different philosophies. There was a presence that wouldn’t let me alone. And I walked home trembling, not because of these guys but because of what was still with me. And it was maybe an hour after we talked, I don’t know the exact amount of time, but I was just overwhelmed with the presence of God. It was in the room with me when I got home, and it was so strong, it’s like, “Okay, I have wanted this chance, if there was a God, that God would show me. This isn’t the way I had expected it, but you know, I would be an idiot, if God is here in the room with me, to blow my chance,” and I’m like, “Okay, God. I don’t understand how Jesus died for me and rose from the dead, how that makes me right with you, but if that’s what you’re saying, I’ll believe it. But God, I don’t know how to be made right with You, so if You want to make me right with You, You need to do it Yourself.”
And what I’m about to describe, I know this is not typical. Most people I know don’t have this happen. But God was very gracious to me, considering where I was coming from. All of a sudden, I felt something rushing through my body, like I’d never felt before. I jumped up scared out of my mind, like, what in the world was this? But I said, “Okay, God. I always said if I ever believed there was a God, I would give God everything, so that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t know how to do it right, but I’m going to do my best.” So I found a Bible. Now, once I had secretly started reading a Bible, and I started in Genesis 1, and that didn’t go very well for me. What I thought it meant. I didn’t understand about ancient or Eastern creation narratives and different literary genres. I wasn’t sophisticated at all in literary terms like that. But I started reading the New Testament, and there was a church where a pastor had seen me running to school in the rain sometimes when he was taking his daughter to school. He stopped and gave me a ride. So he was one of the people I didn’t make fun of. I’d always thought, “Okay. He’s sincere, and he’s nice. So I’m not going to be mean to him.”
But I said, “Okay, I’m going to check out his church.” And so I got there, I think, at 7:30 in the morning, as if it were school, and there was nobody there! And I thought, “Well, I’m not sure when I’m supposed to come.” But I stopped back a little bit later. This was two days after my conversion experience. And when I stopped back later, Sunday school was in progress, and they took me to the teenager’s class, and I found out later the teenagers thought I was a little bit strange. My shoes didn’t match. My face was half shaven. As you can tell, I still don’t like to shave too much, but anyway that was the beginning of my Christian life.
Wow! That’s pretty extraordinary. I find it really interesting that God didn’t, as you say, meet you in a way that you expected. And speaking of Blaise Pascal, it kind of reminds me of his night of fire. This brilliant mathematician, the polymath, Blaise Pascal, incredibly intellectual, just became overwhelmed with the presence of God. He experienced God, and his life was forever changed in a passionate way. And it sounds like that’s what happened with you. It’s like, when you actually experienced the presence of God, everything changes! And it didn’t sounds like you had this experience and then you still had… I’m sure you had some intellectual questions and having to tease all of this out, but it sounds to me that there was no doubt in your mind and in your heart and soul that God was real and that God existed and that God had somehow touched down in your life and made Himself known, based upon that prayer that you had offered, that 2% chance prayer, and He took that 2% and then made it 100%. To where you were completely convinced, and then you started on this journey of really learning, I suppose. Like you say, what scripture is, what church is, and obviously became a very learned scholar on all of those things. But I also love the way that you presented the gospel there. That really it is God reaching down and bringing us to Himself through the person of Christ and what He’s done.
So all of your doubts were erased, but you still had a lot of learning to do, and you started reading the scripture. A lot of it didn’t make sense. Why don’t you walk us on from there?
Sure. Yeah. I mean there’s this one level, I know that I know, and I had to eat humble pie, because I had to go back and apologize to a bunch of Christians that I’d made fun of. And they were like, “Wow!” And I had some relatives who were very pious, and they were among the few people I didn’t make fun of because I knew they were very serious with it, and I respected their seriousness. And when I told them, they were like, “We’ve been praying for you for years,” so I realized, “Okay, well I wasn’t completely on my own here.” It was good to find out that. But intellectually, I still had a lot of questions.
When you look at sociological studies of conversion, my understanding is that often people are socialized into it gradually. That wasn’t the way it was for me, and so I wasn’t getting questions answered along the way. So had plenty of questions, and people in the church, friends, and the pastor, for sure, were able to address some of the questions, but they weren’t able to address all of them. And that started me on a long road of having to get the answers and to nuance the things that I was initially taught as a Christian, once I was converted, and just keep seeking for truth. Which is a good thing, because God is a God of truth, and if you seek the truth with an honest heart, and you keep seeking until you find it and not just put yourself into a position of, “Well, who cares?” or something like that. But there was so much evidence. I mean it took me years to find some of it. But I’m grateful for the people who already were working on that background and providing different lines of evidence.
So you became intellectually convinced. You could see philosophically, intellectually that the reality of God is not only experientially true or substantively true from your experience, but also there are good, rational archaeological, textual, all of these different reasons, everything in reality that points back to the Person of God and who He is.
You had mentioned earlier that sometimes people question that there’s any evidence. As an atheist, sometimes looking back, you want to say there’s no evidence, or that’s oftentimes what I hear. “There’s no evidence for God.” But yet you’re telling me that there is prolific evidence for God, that it is wherever you look if you have eyes to see. And you took, it sounds like, a very painstaking, intentional path towards seeing, looking, and finding evidence. I’m curious. How would you respond to someone if an atheist just said, “There’s no evidence for God,” knowing what you know and experiencing what you have experienced? How would you respond to someone like that?
Philosophically, from the moment of my conversion, everything fell into place, in terms of how to explain the external universe plus my own existence as a sentient being. From this theistic standpoint, it’s like, “Oh! Now everything makes sense,” so that was an immediate change. But I wanted scientific evidence, and I wanted historical evidence. Now, I was planning to be an astrophysicist. Obviously, I can’t do that and become a biblical scholar at the same time. Not enough time in one’s life to do both well. But my younger brother did go on to do his PhD in physics. And he’s a solid believer now also, and he’s like, “The evidence is so clear, and the parameters for what it would need for life to exist in the universe, they’re so finely tuned. It’s just clear.”
But my own area of research is especially in ancient historiography, so, going through what we can know about how things like the gospels were written and what we can know from external evidence how the material in the gospels fits in to what we can see archaeologically and so on. There’s just an abundance of evidence. And even when I was an atheist, I would not have been a Jesus myther. I mean the people who say that Jesus didn’t exist. I mean, you don’t have to believe God exists, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to say, “Okay, Jesus didn’t exist historically. His movement just sprang up out of thin air.” Or you could say, “Oh, okay. Mohammad didn’t exist.” “Actually, I don’t like the Bible. The Bible doesn’t exist.” That doesn’t work.
But if Jesus did exist and you actually look at the evidence about Jesus, His contemporaries experienced Him as a miracle worker, and that’s attested not only in every level from the Christian witnesses about this, including some who had been not just skeptics but enemies of the Jesus movement but then came into the faith. It’s also attested by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. It’s also attested by critics of early Christianity. And things like the site of Jesus’ tomb. That was so carefully preserved. I’m going into different lines of evidence, and people will say, “I dismiss this. I dismiss that,” but the evidence is really strong. But even if you dismiss this line of evidence, there’s another line of evidence, and there’s all sorts of other lines of evidence.
But if we’re not looking for, say, okay, “I have to see God myself, or have my name written in the sky,” we’re saying, “Okay, where does the evidence point?” I think we’ve got plenty of evidence that should compel people to trust in the reality of God.
Yeah. I think, in your story, at some point, you actually turned towards openness in a way. Just that little bit of openness, that 2% openness, where something came, and you were willing to see and experience reality for the way that it was. And I think you’re right, there has to be a willingness to even consider the possibilities, rather than shutting everything down.
You have an amazing story, Craig. Truly amazing to see where you were and where you’ve come, and I can’t imagine the number of lives that you’ve impacted by all of the research and all of the speaking and the thinking that you’ve done, and the living that you’ve done. Your life is an amazing testimony. If there’s a curious skeptic who is listening in and perhaps has a little bit of willingness. He’s curious. Or she is. To search or to look, what would you say to someone like that who might be listening today?
It never hurts to ask. That’s what it was in my case. It was just like, “Well, God if you’re there, please show me.” God may not show you the way you’re expecting, but it never hurts to ask. When we admit that it’s not something we can resolve on our own, when we ask for help, that’s a step towards God, and if you think there’s no God, it can’t hurt, but just in case, you might want to ask.
I know reading scripture is probably very important in terms of a step of starting to look. I wonder if you had any words of wisdom for, if someone did pick up the Bible for the first time maybe, where would you encourage them to read? Or even apart from the Bible, any other books? If somebody says, “Okay, I’m willing to look at the evidence. Where should I look?” Do you have any suggestions either way?
Yeah. The gospels tell you about who Jesus is. Slightly different versions in the four of them, so you get to know about Jesus from different angles. I think that’s a great place to start.
And for those who don’t know what the gospels are, could you tell them?
Yeah. The majority of scholars today recognize that the gospels fit the genre, the literary type, of ancient biographies, and actually in the early Roman Empire, that was the apex of the historiographic interest in the way ancient biography was written. And, to actually have multiple biographies of one person within living memory of that person, the way oral historiography defines living memory, that’s phenomenal. We have that only extremely rarely for any figures in antiquity, and we have that with the gospels.
For the person of Jesus, right? They’re stories, the biographies of Christ?
Yeah. The biographies of Jesus in the Bible. So it’s like two thirds or three quarters of the way through the Bible, in what is, in the Christian Bible, called the New Testament. They begin the New Testament.
And they’re Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Yeah. Just for those who just aren’t familiar.
Yeah. I take too much for granted. When I was a young Christian, again, like I said, I didn’t really know how to read different literary types, and so my first time through Matthew, I was like, “This is great!” and then I got to the end of Mark, and Jesus gets crucified and rises again, and I’m like, “How often is this going to happen?” I didn’t realize it’s four different gospels. It’s not supposed to be in chronological order all the way through.
In personal conversation, I can talk with people about the scientific questions, but I don’t speak as one whose PhD is in science. I speak as one whose PhD is in New Testament and Christian Origins, so I speak as a historian. But one book, I think that probably shows the best of where the scientific evidence has gone at the moment is by Stephen Meyer called Return of the God Hypothesis. I think that’s a really good case.
In terms of historiography, because that’s where I work, there are so many books on a less academic level, not as heavily documented, but more readable for people who, you know, it’s not their discipline. I used to recommend a little book by F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable?, but there are so many other ones right now.
So let’s turn the page, and I’m thinking now of the Christians who are listening who have skeptical friends that may or may not want to listen to the evidence. The atheist friends may have good or bad impressions of who Christians are. And I’m wondering how you could advise Christians in terms of how they can best engage with those who don’t believe. Do you have any words there?
Yeah. It kind of depends on where your skeptical friends are coming from. If they are, like I was, making fun of you, you can pray for them. And be nice to them. You never know what God might be doing in their hearts. But if you know your stuff and you can engage in intelligent conversation and answer some of the questions, that’s really important. I wanted that so much, and even after I became a Christian, I wanted that so much. I was able to find some people who could answer some of my questions. Actually, some ministers and some other kinds of churches than the one that I went to were able to answer of the questions because of the areas in which they were trained. But it helps, I think, to be able to answer people’s questions.
But you’re not just dealing with an argument. You’re dealing with a person. And a person needs to be shown the love of God. It makes love a whole lot more believable if people can actually see it embodied in a world where sometimes love is hard to find or people have experienced deep brokenness, or I think sometimes my feelings were frozen. I didn’t want to deal with the feeling level, but we’re all people, and that’s part of who we are, too. So be patient.
And sometimes people, they came from backgrounds of faith and were really hurt, and so they need to be shown something different. And sometimes, like me, they came from backgrounds of no faith, and they think that makes sense. Actually, it was faith. It was just faith in nothing, rather than faith in something, but they need to… It helps if they have somebody that they can trust to really answer them honestly, and dialogue with them if they’re open to it, or if they think maybe someday they do become open to it, they know who to go to, like the pastor who was really nice to me.
And I’m also thinking of those family members of yours who were praying for you, and you didn’t even know. I think prayer can make a tremendous difference. It certainly did, I think, in your story. Not only others praying for you but you willing to take that first step of praying to God.
I don’t think my step was the first one. I think the Holy Spirit was probably dealing with me already, and I just didn’t recognize it yet.
In closing here, Craig, is there anything else that you’d like to add? Or say? You mentioned the Holy Spirit. For those who that sounds like a very strange concept, but for you as a Christian, the Holy Spirit is God, and so I don’t know if you want to end with a word about the Holy Spirit or anything else that’s on your mind or heart?
Yeah. Because God is real, God does work in our hearts to show us His reality. And therefore, we can pray with confidence that God hears us, that God is going to work in people’s hearts. I think people still have a choice. Not everybody’s going to respond positively to God leading. We can see that pretty clearly in the Bible. But we can pray with confidence to a God who does show Himself and does work in the world, and sometimes I’ve been frustrated because at certain times in my life, there were certain people who wouldn’t listen to me, but found that even in dialoguing with them, what it helped me to do was to come up with answers that someday, somebody down the road would be asking the same questions. It’s like Jesus told about sowing the seed widely, and there’s different kinds of soil, and some are going to bring forth fruit and some aren’t, and you don’t know at the beginning which seed is going to bring forth fruit.
Those guys who were out sharing their faith that day, on October 31, 1975, who shared with me the message of Christ, they may not have been the most educated people in some respects. They may not have been the most culturally contextually relevant to me in some other respects. But they were available. They were probably the only people available in that town who actually were willing to go out and engage people on the streets who would never set foot in a church, and God used them.
God works in personal and powerful ways. He looks for those who are available, doesn’t He? And when our lives intersect with others, He can do amazing things. What an inspired story and what an inspiration you are to all of us, Craig. Thank you so much for coming and just offering so much to us, spiritually and intellectually, and so much for us to think about and really be challenged by. I love your story. Thank you so much for coming and telling it today.
Thank you so much, Jana. God bless you.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Dr. Craig Keener’s story. You can find out more about his books and his recommended reading in the podcast episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our Side B Stories website at sidebstories.com. If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll follow, rate, review, and share our podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.