From Skepticism to Belief

A Conversation With Josh McDowell

From Skepticism to Belief

A Conversation With Josh McDowell

As a skeptical college student, Josh McDowell investigated Christianity and came to believe that the New Testament account of Jesus Christ is true. Today, as a speaker and author of apologetics books such as “More Than a Carpenter” and “Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” McDowell shares with other skeptics his journey to faith in Jesus. With Easter approaching, Decision talked to McDowell about the evidence that he discovered.

Q: How did you start on the journey from atheism to faith in Christ?

A: I met some Christians who just irked me. I asked them what made their lives different. They said, “Jesus Christ.” I exploded and said, “Don’t give me that garbage.” I was 19 years old at the time, and I had a lot of hurt from my dad. I felt that he and God had abandoned me. It all came to the surface like a volcano. But these Christians just kept challenging me–or irritating me–until finally I said, “OK, I’ll accept your challenge.” I didn’t do it to prove anything. I did it to refute them.

When you take an approach that the New Testament is historically accurate or historically inaccurate, that determines how you evaluate everything you come across. If you say there is no God, then you tend to negate whatever source you come across, without being historically critical of it. When I set out as a non-Christian to refute the Gospels, it hit me that the New Testament is true. What I meant by “true” is that what we have written down today about what Jesus said and did is true–not so much that what He said and He did was truth. After that I looked at the evidence in a more objective way and eventually became a Christian.

So first I came to the conclusion that I could trust the New Testament. Then I examined the Incarnation. Is it true? At that point I wanted it to be true, but if it wasn’t, I would walk away and never turn back. I ended up being convinced through Bible prophecy, miracles and the trilemma [i.e., Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar or Lord] that Jesus Christ had to be different. And that difference was explained by His claims as the Messiah.

Q: You once said, “A heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects.” What did you mean?

A: It’s a leap of faith, but it’s a leap of faith into the light. The Bible says you shall know the truth–not ignore it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Paul appealed to the intellect, to reason and to history. God created our minds to know Him, our hearts to love Him and our will to choose Him. All three need to be operational in a loving, maximum relationship with God.

When my mind rejects something or struggles with it, my heart cannot rejoice. My mind will never come to a 100 percent conclusion, and that’s where faith comes in. But faith goes with the evidence–not contrary to the evidence.

Q: When the mind is satisfied, sometimes the heart still doesn’t rejoice. Why?

A: Most people don’t have an intellectual problem. They have a moral problem, and they don’t want to deal with it.

A friend of mine had a brother who was adamant against Christ, the Resurrection and the Scriptures. They talked back and forth. The brother seemed to have all these intellectual arguments, but I kept telling my friend that the objections were not intellectual. Finally, his brother admitted, “I do not want to believe, because then I couldn’t live the lifestyle I’m living.” He had divorced his wife and had another woman move in with him. After all these weeks of intellectual arguments, they realized the real issue wasn’t intellectual. It was moral.

Q: There are so many presuppositions in the secular person’s mind. How do you address a person on the street and say, “Let’s examine this”?

A: I always share my testimony. A man with an argument is always at the mercy of a man with an experience. As Christians we should have both the experience and the argument.

Then I ask the person: “What type of evidence will you accept? What type of evidence is credible to you? How do you know a book is historically accurate?” Except in a rare situation, I can take their analysis and show them that the New Testament and the Resurrection are true according to their own standard of credibility.

Q: You’ve said, “I believe, historically, the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ is stronger than almost any other event of antiquity.” Can you describe some of that evidence?

A: Some of the evidence I found concerned how the writers of the New Testament recorded the Resurrection.

First, they wrote as eyewitnesses, and they recorded eyewitness accounts. Luke said he wasn’t an eyewitness, but everything he wrote came from eyewitnesses. Second, they appealed to the knowledge of their listeners and readers concerning the facts about the evidence of which they wrote. They were speaking to what was probably the most vocal, knowledgeable, antagonistic group of critics, yet Peter said, “Men of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth was a man entrusted to you–not just to us, but to you–by God with miracles and wonders and signs, which God performed through Him in your midst just as you, yourselves, know” (Cf. Acts 2:22).

If the critics had not seen those miracles, wonders and signs, then Peter would have been lucky to make it out alive from that situation. Instead, history shows that thousands were added to the Church–Jewish leaders, everyone. This is so persuasive for me.

If the Resurrection didn’t happen, the most difficult place on earth to convince people that it did would be Jerusalem. A 15-minute walk to the tomb could end the discussion. But the disciples didn’t trip off to Rome, Ephesus, Athens or Caesarea of Philippi. They went straight to Jerusalem to proclaim Christ risen from the dead in the presence of the most adamant critics. At any moment they could have been proven wrong just by someone going to the tomb and producing a body.

Q: What are some arguments that skeptics have, and how would you refute those arguments?

A: Skeptics say that a lot of people throughout history have died for a lie. That’s right; they have. But such people always think it is the truth. If the Resurrection was a lie, the disciples had to know it. Therefore, they not only would have died for a lie, but they would have known it was a lie. That, too, is persuasive for me.

Then someone will say, “A lot of people have died for a great cause.” That’s right; they have. But here’s the problem with the disciples: Their great Cause died on the cross. The Jews believed that when the Messiah came, He would be a reigning, political Messiah. He could not die, and He would throw the hated Roman oppressor out of the land. He would rule the world from Jerusalem.

Did you ever wonder why no one understood Jesus? The disciples had no concept that the Messiah could die; they thought they were in on a good thing. Jesus said, “I came to die,” but the disciples believed that He came to live and to conquer. Then their great Hope was crucified. This explains why they left the Crucifixion so discouraged and hid themselves. But something happened in a matter of days and weeks–not months and years. Their lives turned upsidedown. They went out and died martyrs’ deaths, and all for what? A dead cause? No!

These men died martyrs’ deaths for one thing–an empty tomb and the appearances of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. They said in Acts 1 that they lived with Him and ate with Him and that there were many convincing proofs after the Resurrection.

I struggled with this as a nonbeliever. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, I could not in any other way explain what happened almost overnight in the lives of the apostles.

Q: The New Testament details the conversion of some of Jesus’ critics. What conversions in the New Testament convinced you?

A: Paul was a Jewish leader. He believed in pure Judaism and that Jesus was a false Messiah. He hated Christians so much that he got permission to go into other cities to persecute them and to cast his vote for their deaths. Yet, Paul said in his own words that Jesus of Nazareth appeared to him. He was struck blind and was told to go into the city. Whether or not you believe that happened, you have to explain what happened that caused Saul of Tarsus to become the Apostle Paul.

I knew as a non-Christian that I had to refute this. I tried every aspect. But in Acts Paul concluded that the resurrected Christ truly appeared to him. I could find no other rational explanation.

Q: Did other details in the New Testament challenge you?

A: There’s the emergence of the Church. Throughout Acts and the writings of the Early Church fathers, the whole message for the founding of the Church was the Resurrection.

If you remove the Resurrection, how in the world do you explain the Church? There were 500 living witnesses.
Everything would have been refuted if it were false. Now, 1 Corinthians is one of the oldest of all of Paul’s writings. Even a skeptic or a liberal would acknowledge this. Paul put his whole reputation on the line. He said, “Jesus appeared to more than 500 witnesses at one time, and the majority of them are still alive” (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:6).

Are you telling me that no skeptic among those profound Jewish leaders examined those witnesses? Paul’s whole reputation would have been ruined if his assertion were not true.

The tomb was empty, and there were two explanations: a natural explanation or a supernatural explanation. You can explain away the empty tomb through resuscitation (if that was even possible) or through a stolen body. An empty tomb does not prove the Resurrection, but the appearances of the living Christ do.

Others say it was supernatural. Finally, I had to conclude that there was not one single natural explanation that would meet my criteria when it came to the Resurrection. Whatever I came up with had to meet all the criteria of the evidence; I couldn’t just do away with this evidence because it doesn’t fit this theory. It all must fit together, and the Resurrection is the only theory that takes into account all the factors and provides a rational explanation for what followed.

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