Christianity possesses quite a distinctive and peculiar understanding of the way human knowledge works. On the one hand, because we believe that God is a rational, logical Being who created the universe in a coherent, stable manner, Christianity confidently teaches that human beings can know God and the world around them. We are not skeptics or solipsists. However, Christianity also teaches that human beings have become indelibly fractured through sin, and now stand in moral rebellion against our Maker. This combination of creation and fall makes for a paradoxical tension in the arena of human knowing. Historically, Christian theology has taught that the effects of sin are all-encompassing and catastrophic. There is no sphere of humanity’s existence that is left untouched or unperturbed by spiritual darkness. Not only is our behavior disoriented, but so are our emotional and cognitive processes. Everything, in some deep sense, has gone awry. Nothing functions the way it should, including the way we know God, other human beings, the world around us, and even ourselves.
Thus, when Christians engage philosphically with the dilemma of widespread unbelief in the world (that is, with the conscious, intentional lack of intellectual assent to the truth claims of the gospel), they must be careful to lodge their epistemology consistently on a Christian foundation. It seems to me that two possible explanations for human unbelief must be ruled out if Christianity is true. First, it cannot be the case that people disbelieve because there is not sufficient evidence for God’s existence or reality:
“For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven upon all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Because what is known about God is clearly evident among them, for God has made it known to them. For the invisible things of God have been clearly perceived since the creation of the world in the things that have been made–his eternal power and divinity–so that they are without excuse. Because even though they knew God, they did not glorify or thank him as God, but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:18-22)
Second, it cannot be the case that people fail to believe in Jesus because they are not intelligent enough or incapable of evaluating the evidence coherently. While sin smears the ways we choose to perceive the world, it is ultimately our affections that are the problem, not our brute capacity for seeing what is there. Human beings would not have had higher IQ’s if they had not become sinners. They would simply be more open to the truth in love instead of suppressing it in unrighteousness. For Christians, the primary epistemological problem is humanity’s hardness of heart toward spiritual beauty. We simply like the fantasy worlds of our own construction (where we are at the center) better than the real world where there is an awesome Lord who stands over against us in judgment and grace, calling us to account and beckoning us to align our perception of reality around Him. Consider this unabashededly straightforward claim from the Gospel of John:
“And this is the judgment–that the light entered into the world, and human beings have loved the darkness rather than the light. Why? Because their deeds were evil. For every person who practices wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be publicly exposed. But the person who does the truth comes to the light, in order that his deeds might be revealed–revealed that they have been accomplished by God.” (John 3:19-21)
Recently I’ve stumbled across a wonderful exposition of a truly Christian epistemology in action. The Magician’s Nephew is the neglected first book in C. S. Lewis’ Narnian tales, taking place narratively prior to all the other stories, though it was not first in the original order of publication. Midway through this “origins” book (in chapter ten, to be precise) the creation of Narnia is wondrously depicted as Digory and Polly and Uncle Andrew find themselves unwittingly transported to this strange new place by way of their magic rings. Coming along on the ride with them to a Narnia that is still “formless and void” is an evil enchantress who will eventually become the White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The scene they go on to witness is breathtaking. Calling forth Narnia and all of its talking creatures out of darkness through his magical voice, Aslan’s song of beauty and power is marveled at by all the characters. Except, of course, for the witch. And also except for Uncle Andrew, who is increasingly revealed in the narrative to be a dastardly, cruel fellow who is filled with brutally selfish ambition and self-deceptive arrogance. His moral compass is pathetically misdirected due to his tragic preoccupation with the trivialities of self. Consider how Lewis explains the “reasons” for his stunning insistence on unbelief, and in doing so exposes my own sinful tendencies to hide from reality in its manifold nuances:
“We must now go back a bit and explain what the whole scene had looked like from Uncle Andrew’s point of view. It had not made at all the same impression on him as on the Cabby and the children. For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.
Ever since the animals first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn’t really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn’t notice that Aslan was choosing one pair ouf of every kind of beast [to be able to talk in human language and to reason]. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn’t run away from the big Lion.
When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose he saw that the singer was a lion (“only a lion,’ as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing–only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. ‘Of course it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, ‘Narnia, awake,’ he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings. And when they laughed–well, you can imagine. That was worse for Uncle Andrew than anything that had happened yet. Such a horrid, bloodthirsty din of hungry and angry brutes he had never heard in his life. Then, to his utter rage and horror, he saw the other three humans actually walking out into the open to meet the animals.
‘The fools!’ he said to himself. ‘Now those brutes will eat the rings along with the children and I’ll never be able to get home again. What a selfish little boy Digory is! And the others are just as bad. If they want to throw away their own lives, that’s their business. But what about me? They don’t seem to think of that. No one thinks of me.’
Finally, when a whole crowd of animals came rushing toward him, he turned and ran for his life. And now anyone could see that the air of that young world was really doing the old gentleman good. In London he had been far too old to run: now, he ran at a speed which would have made him certain to win the hundred yards’ race at any Prep school in England. His coat-tails flying out behind him were a fine sight. But of course it was no use. Many of the animals behind him were swift ones; it was the first run they had ever taken in their lives and they were all longing to use their new muscles. ‘After him! After him!’ they shouted. ‘Perhaps he’s that Neevil! Tally-ho! Tantivy! Cut him off! Round him up! Keep it up! Hurrah!’
In a very few minutes some of them got ahead of him. They lined up in a row and barred his way. Others hemmed him in from behind. Wherever he looked he saw terrors. Antlers of great elks and the huge face of an elephant towered over him. Heavy, serious-minded bears and boars grunted behind him. Cool-looking leopards and panthers with sarcastic faces (as he thought) stared at him and waved their tails. What struck him most of all was the number of open mouths. The animals had really opened their mouths to pant; he thought they had opened their mouths to eat him.
Uncle Andrew stood trembling and swaying this way and that. He had never liked animals at the best of times, being usually rather afraid of them; and of course years of doing cruel experiments on animals had made him hate and fear them far more.
‘Now, sir,’ said the Bulldog in his business-like way, ‘are you animal, vegetable, or mineral?’ That was what it really said; but all Uncle Andrew heard was ‘Gr-r-r-arrh-ow!'”