Are there unanswerable questions? Should we opt to not answer some questions and choose instead to just “accept some things by faith?”
Billy Graham faced this dilemma early in his career as an evangelist when his close friend Chuck Taylor barraged him with questions about the Bible. Taylor had gone off to a seminary that doubted the authority and inerrancy of the Bible and wanted Graham to explain why the Bible contained what appeared to be contradictions, problems regarding history and science, and other thorny issues.
Graham writes of his struggle in his autobiography, Just As I Am:
“I got up and took a walk. The moon was out. The shadows were long in the San Bernardino Mountains surrounding the retreat center. Dropping to my knees there in the woods, I opened the Bible at random on a tree stump in front of me….
The exact wording of my prayer is beyond recall, but it must have echoed my thoughts: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.… Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word” (page 139).
Some biographers and fans of Graham have pointed to this moment as a watershed that led to his success. Others have lifted his example up as one all Christians should adopt.
I find the issue to be more complex. I realize I may be on thin ice to question someone used by God in such miraculous ways as Billy Graham. But cautiously and with tremendous reverence for the way God did anoint Graham’s ministry, I want to suggest that his example may not be universal. In other words, what undeniably worked for Graham may not work for all Christians. Some people need deeper answers and they should be encouraged to seek them out. One of my prayers for this blog is for it to be a source of encouragement for those kinds of Christians.
Some want further explanation about how Scripture squares with science and history. Some want to wrestle with apparent contradictions until an explanation resolves the tension. Tragically, some have been told they are sinning by even asking such questions. They’ve been told to stop being so intellectual and “accept things by faith.”
Let me try to put it another way. I think there may be other options besides Graham’s and Taylor’s. Graham accepted the Bible by faith. Taylor demanded explanations that fit his intellect and, when he didn’t get them, he rejected the Bible.
I want to quickly add that everyone needs to accept, with humility, the limits of their own intellect. At some point (and it varies for different people) we need to say, “Just because I don’t understand something does not mean there is no answer out there.” Or “Perhaps we need to do more research historically, scientifically, archeologically, or with other academic disciplines before we can understand certain issues.” (By the way, good scientists do this all the time. They humbly admit that more research needs to be done and, until then, we should withhold judgment or refrain from firm conclusions.)
The good news for those who want to dig deeper is that resources do exist to help. For Biblical issues, recent commentaries are breaking new ground in levels of understanding and dismantling arguments that have lofted themselves above the scriptures. For apologetic questions, Christian philosophers and theologians are producing written arguments that are worth the effort for those who want more than they can find in footnotes or clichés. One very helpful resource with a growing number of articles is The Christ on Campus Initiative at The Gospel Coalition’s website.
There is much more to be said about this important issue. Too many sincere questioners (and I do admit that many are not sincere) have been turned off by shallow answers to questions that deserve better responses. Let’s offer thoughtful faith to those who are looking for it.
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Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.
To find out more, visit his blog, Connection Points.