Many of the sharpest and most influential thinkers in England during the first years of the 20th century were outspoken in their skepticism toward the central claims of Christianity. Men such as Robert Blatchford (1851-1943) leveled a number of forceful arguments against Christian doctrine, relying on historical, scientific, and sociological research to bolster their perspectives.
Into this arena of prominent, published writers and thinkers marched 29-year-old G. K. Chesterton.
Now, it is hard to think of Chesterton as if he were the faithful “David” going forward to battle the skeptical “Goliath,” primarily because Chesterton physically resembled a jolly giant, not a tiny shepherd boy. Nevertheless, when you consider that Chesterton’s age was nearly half that of his opponents, you might be amazed at the skill with which he answered the most common objections to Christianity in his day.
In an essay entitled, “Christianity and Rationalism,” Chesterton went public with his Christian faith, and he did so by using the skeptical arguments of Blatchford as the very reasons he subscribed to Christianity. Watch how Chesterton flipped four common arguments against Christianity upside down.
Argument #1: There are many ancient mythological accounts that parallel the Christian story.
Chesterton’s Response: If a story appears repeatedly in various cultures, might it point to something real?
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous stroll with a still skeptical C. S. Lewis, Tolkien made the case that Christianity was the myth that really happened. It was the true myth to which all the other stories were pointing. Tolkien’s logic helped Lewis come to faith. But that line of logic wasn’t new with Tolkien. He was echoing Chesterton’s perspective from two decades before.
“If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumors and perversions of the Christian God? If the center of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the center have a muddled version of that fact?… When learned skeptics come to me and say, ‘Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a story of Incarnation?’ I should reply: ‘Speaking as an unlearned person, I don’t know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn’t.’”
Argument #2: Christianity is a gloomy and ascetic religion that causes people to give up their home and happiness and sacrifice their health or sexuality.
Chesterton’s response: If countless people abandon normalcy to pursue the magnificent, might it be that such a reality, in fact, exists?
Rather than seeing Christianity’s call to self-denial as a reason to dismiss it, Chesterton saw the devotion of ascetic Christians as evidence for the truly supernatural experience of conversion.
“The very oddity and completeness of… surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves.”
“Mr. Blatchford tries to prove that there is no such thing by proving that there are people who live on nothing else,” Chesterton wrote. In other words, the critics were trying to prove that there is no real spiritual experience at the heart of Christianity by pointing to people who seemed to survive on nothing else but their spiritual experience. That’s why Chesterton saw the impulse toward self-denial as a reason to take their truth claims seriously.
“When the learned skeptic says to me: ‘Christian saints gave up love and liberty for this one rapture of Christianity,’ I reply, ‘I should have been surprised if they hadn’t.’”
Argument #3. Christianity has produced tumult and cruelty in the world.
Chesterton’s response: If the vision of eternal life “upsets values and creates a kind of cruel rush,” might it be that the vision indicates a real truth?
Chesterton noted that masses of good, common men act with a measure of cruelty whenever something they value is in peril – the food of their children, or the independence of their country. Furthermore:
“When something is set before them that is not only enormously valuable, but also quite new, the sudden vision, the chance of winning it, the chance of losing it, drive them mad. It has the same effect … that the finding of gold has in the economic world. It upsets values, and creates a kind of cruel rush.”
Note that Chesterton was not excusing the cruelty or tumult, only demonstrating why common people may act in these surprising ways. He points to the excesses of the French Revolution in pursuit of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as a demonstration of the preciousness of those values. “What if Christianity was yet more maddening because it was yet more precious?” he asked, contrasting the “colossal realism” of Christianity to the “eternal sentimentality” of secularism.
“When the learned skeptic says: ‘Christianity produced wars and persecutions,’ we shall reply: ‘Naturally.’
Argument #4: The Hebrew and Christian accounts of God are tribal, unsophisticated and much too attached to particular locations.
Chesterton’s Response: If the Old Testament accounts of God are down-to-earth and unsophisticated, might that very fact indicate their validity?
Chesterton made the case that the Old Testament accounts of God’s revelation were credible precisely because they did not come to us as “cosmic philosophy.” The skeptics should turn their skepticism toward anachronistic notions of God being a cosmic force or energy.
“If Moses had said God was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary. As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see something extraordinary…. When the learned skeptic says: ‘The visions of the Old Testament were local, and rustic, and grotesque,’ we shall answer: ‘Of course. They were genuine.’”
Chesterton did not dismiss the arguments against Christianity. He recognized the truth in each objection, but then he turned the objection inside out in order to make a case against the skeptic. His conclusion is just as memorable as his defense, with a brilliant twist at the end:
“Thus…the reasons that I have for believing in Christianity are, in very many cases, to repeat those arguments which Mr. Blatchford, in some strange way, seems to regard as arguments against it. His book is really rich and powerful. He has undoubtedly set up these four great guns of which I have spoken. I have nothing to say against the size and ammunition of the guns. I only say that by some accident of arrangement he has set up those four pieces of artillery with the tails pointing at me and the mouths pointing at himself. If I were not so humane, I should say: ‘Gentlemen of the Secularist Guard, fire first.’”