• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Answering the “Confusing Revelation” Objection to Christianity

I was five years old, sitting in the back of our Oldsmobile when my mom turned around and told me that I needed to choose between Jesus and the devil. Whoa, sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?! Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have presented the decision quite like that. (My mom probably would agree.) But be that as it may, those were the options presented to me. And the decision I made that day initiated a journey into Christian faith which has continued now for forty years.

What’s So Confusing About Grace?

One thing I know after four decades: grace is definitely amazing.

One other thing I know: it’s also confusing, so confusing, in fact, that I wrote the new book What’s So Confusing About Grace? to serve as a chronicle of my forty years attempting to understand the precise nature and boundaries of salvation.

Let’s start with the question of belief: what do you need to believe to be saved? For starters, must one believe that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9)? If you do need to believe that then is that all you need to believe? Or are there additional doctrines that are required as well? And if there are, what exactly are those additional doctrines? Does salvation require belief in the Trinity, the incarnation, or the second coming of Christ, for example?

The questions also extend to ethics. Must you live a certain way if you are to be saved, doing particular good works and avoiding particular “mortal” sins? And if so, which good works must you do and which mortal sins must you avoid in order to be saved?

And are these requirements the same for everyone? Do they apply to infants and small children? Or is there a threshold (the 13th birthday, perhaps) at which point these demands suddenly apply?

And does God “grade on a curve” in consideration of factors like a hard life and low intelligence? Or does he demand the same belief and practice of everyone? Does he demand the same of an Australian aboriginal who lived five hundred years ago as he demands of the housewife who attends First Baptist in Louisville? Or does God adjust his requirements over time and place?

And why isn’t any of this any clearer?

Like I said, grace is confusing. At least that much is clear.

The 33,000 Objection

It should be no surprise that skeptics have identified this lack of clarity as grounds to reject Christianity.  And it is at this point that the topic becomes a matter not just for theological reflection but also for apologetic concern.

The resulting objection comes in different forms. According to one version, what I call the “33,000 Objection to Christianity,” the problem cashes out like this:

“You think Christianity is true? Okay then, which Christianity? After all, there are 33,000 of them!”

While the 33,000 Objection is rarely stated with more precision than this, there is a substantial objection behind that incredulous rejoinder. And it’s worth teasing out that objection because it consists of a serious undercutting defeater to Christianity.

In case you’re wondering, a defeater is an objection to a proposition (i.e. counterevidence which purports to “defeat” that proposition). There are two kinds of defeaters: rebutting and undercutting. While a rebutting defeater seeks to provide evidence to believe that a proposition is false, an undercutting defeater aims to undermine one’s grounds to believe a proposition is true.

In my experience, the 33,000 Objection is typically presented in the mode of an undercutting defeater: by pointing out the many disagreements that exist among self-described Christians as regards belief and practice, the objector aims to undercut one’s basis to accept any single one of those versions as true.

The Confusing Revelation Objection

While the 33,000 Objection is a significant challenge worth considering, in the remainder of this article I want to consider a second objection, one that seeks to turn the diversity of Christian belief and practice into a rebutting defeater to the truth of Christianity generally. I will dub this objection the “Confusing Revelation Objection.” It can be summarized in the following syllogism:

  1. Any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.
  2. God is all knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good.
  3. Therefore, God will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.
  4. The Christian revelation is not maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.
  5. Therefore, God did not reveal the Christian revelation.

In case you’re wondering, the argument does not assume God exists. Rather, it only affirms that if God exists then he did not reveal the Christian revelation.

Again, note the difference in scope between these two objections: while the 33,000 Objection only seeks to undercut one’s ground to accept any particular version of Christianity as true, the Confusing Revelation Objection seeks to provide a reason to believe all versions of Christianity are false. In short, this ambitious argument is definitely worth a rebuttal.

So how might a Christian respond?

The Assumptions Behind the Confusing Revelation Objection

Some Christians might be inclined to reject the fourth premise of the argument by insisting that the Christian revelation is maximally clear regarding what God requires in terms of belief and practice. However, I do not think this line of attack is promising given that, so it seems to me, Christians do, in fact, disagree widely on what is required in terms of belief and practice. In other words, premise four definitely seems plausible.

Fortunately, there is a second potential point of rebuttal. This approach consists of rejecting the first premise. To recap:

  1. Any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.

In order to challenge this premise we might begin by asking why people are inclined to believe it is true in the first place.

It seems to me that the plausibility of premise one depends on two assumptions.

To begin with, there is the information assumption according to which revelation is about conveying information, data which is essential to bring the individual into conformity with what God requires. On this account, revelation is like a map directing the proper evacuation procedure in case of fire. Just as a capable map creator would ensure that her map was maximally efficient at directing people to evacuate a building, so any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being would be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.

I’m well familiar with the information assumption. Indeed, this idea that revelation is simply about conveying important information was deeply formative in my conservative Protestant upbringing. For example, when I was a kid we described the Bible with the acronym Basic Information Before Leaving Earth. That notion of the Bible as a compilation of information on how best to “leave earth” compares rather neatly with an escape map providing basic information to evacuate a building.

Next up, we have the innocent failure assumption. According to this assumption, if a revelation is not adequately clear then that allows for the possibility that an indeterminate number of individuals could non-culpably fail to acquire the information required to benefit from the revelation.

Consider an analogy: if an exit sign on the highway is not adequately clear (e.g. it is obscured by trees), then an indeterminate number of motorists could non-culpably miss their exit. Whether we’re talking motorists or salvation seekers, these individuals would be innocent of their failures (missing the exit; missing the right beliefs/actions) because these errors would be borne of a mistaken assessment of information that was inadequately presented.

Responding to the Confusing Revelation Objection

If we want to rebut the Confusing Revelation Objection, we should focus on challenging these two underlying assumptions.

I’ll begin by responding to the innocent failure assumption. Here all one needs to do is reject the claim that there is ever any person who non-culpably fails to acquire any information that would be required for salvation.

There are a variety of ways one might flesh out an account along these lines. For example, one could appeal to a “second chance” theology according to which any doctrine which is unclear in this life is presented with sufficient clarity posthumously at which point a person could then offer a fully informed assent or denial. But that’s just one possibility. All we need to affirm at this point is that God would never allow any individual to non-culpably fail to acquire information essential for salvation.

This brings us to the information assumption according to which salvation is essentially about acquiring the “right” set of beliefs and practices. What should we think of this assumption?

At this point I return to the forty year journey chronicled in my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?  And I can say that this journey has made it manifestly clear (to me, at least) that Christianity is not simply a matter of acquiring the right information (doctrines and practices). There is intrinsic value in the journey of attempting to figure out the faith, and that journey is only made possible when a lack of clarity exists.

Imagine that there was unanimity among Christians on how to answer all these questions. Let’s say, for example, that all Christians agreed that a person was required to believe doctrines x, y, and z by their 13th birthday. This clarity could provide particular goods, but arguably it would also inhibit a deeper growth into faith as parents focused on ensuring their children assented to particular doctrines by the “deadline”.

By contrast, a faith that leaves these matters unclear opens up the space for the natural cultivation of genuine relationship between God and his creatures. For these reasons I conclude that God would have morally sufficient reasons to allow a lack of clarity on many of these questions.

Conclusion

To sum up, we began with the undeniable fact that grace is confusing. That much I will not deny!

Next, I argued that this phenomenon fuels two objections to Christianity: the 33,000 Objection (an undercutting defeater) and the Confusing Revelation Objection (a rebutting defeater). In this article I focused on responding to the Confusing Revelation Objection. I did so first by isolating two underlying assumptions – the information assumption and the innocent failure assumption. Next, I argued that a Christian need not (and indeed should not) accept either assumption.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Confusing Revelation Objection fails. While the grace of God in Christianity is indeed confusing, that fact does not constitute a viable objection to that revelation.

Dr. Randal Rauser

Written by

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary where he has taught since 2003. He is the author of many books including What on Earth do we Know About Heaven? (Baker, 2013); The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (InterVarsity, 2012); Is the Atheist My Neighbor? (Cascade, 2015); and his most recent book, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar: Talking about God, the Universe, and Everything (Prometheus Books, 2016). Randal also blogs and podcasts at RandalRauser.com and lectures widely on Christian worldview and apologetics.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.