Tom Gilson

Fifty or a Thousand Simple Questions for Every Christian

A while back I picked up a book  titled 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian. I was thinking it might provide an interesting source of discussion here on the blog. I finally got into it this week, and the first thing I discovered was that its author, Guy Harrison, gave it the wrong name. There are a lot more than fifty questions. A rough computer search turned up almost 900 question marks, meaning the title was off by a factor of at least 17 or 18.

I’m not just caviling over the count. The questions amount to fifty short chapters of Fragenblitzen (from the German for questions and lightning).

But hey, it’s a book, right? Readers of books are expected to be able to take time to think through lots of questions. I’m highly in favor of that; in fact my next solo book project is going to be on the importance of asking questions. Its working title is Too Quick To Answer, and my target is Christians who don’t give enough respect to good questions.

Still there’s such also thing as being too quick to question, and Harrison is guilty of that. In just two paragraphs in the first chapter he asks how God and his son could be the same being; how God could have sent himself to earth, sacrificed himself, and then returned to be with himself; how Jesus’ sacrifice was such a big deal if he was God and knew how it was going to come out; and what Jesus really gave up.

Most of those issues were phrased as problem statements. They’re questions without question marks. That means that even the nearly 900 question marks I counted in this book of “50 simple questions” fail to represent anywhere near the full number of questions Harrison wants answered.

Back to those two paragraphs. They’re in a chapter titled “Does Christianity Make Sense?” It’s a great question. Harrison’s first sub-question is a good one, too: “How can we say that God sent his son and sacrificed him for us when they are the same being?” That’s fine, too.

Then he says, “Sincere skeptics recognize a fundamental problem with this story.” Good for them. They’re not the only ones. Christians have wrestled with it since the very beginning.

The conclusion at Nicaea was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one in substance or essence, three in person. There’s some sophisticated philosophical thinking involved in that conclusion.

But Harrison goes on to say, “The skeptic can only ask himself if any of this makes sense.” Well, no, that’s not the only thing the skeptic can do. He could ask the Christians who have thought through how it makes sense. I’m not talking about the friends and pastors he’s talked to who don’t know the answers. I’m talking about the ones who do. There’s both hubris and ignorance on display here, in the way he seems to think no Christian would have thought these things through.

He’s too quick to question. By that I mean he’s too quick to move from one good question to the next. The questions are fine. They have answers. Some of the answers involve in-depth explanation. Harrison doesn’t take the time for any of that. He draws conclusions instead; for example,

There seems to be a very serious problem with the claim that God sent his son to Earth as a sacrifice for us because God and Jesus are supposed to be the same being.

Actually the serious problem is that Harrison doesn’t seem to have grappled with the serious answers Christians have given to that question.

That kind of error pervades his book. In his chapter on the Resurrection he points out rightly that “It’s not rare for people to believe something that is certainly not true and to die for it.” He misses the fact that every time any apologist I know of has spoken of the apostles dying for their belief in Christ’s resurrection, they’ve also explained how the obvious fact Harrison has brought up here is irrelevant to the case.

Elsewhere is objection to the fine-tuning argument for God focuses partly on our lack of knowledge concerning what life must be like. He doesn’t seem to be aware that the universe’s isn’t just fine-tuned for life, it’s fine-tuned for any organized complexity of any sort whatsoever. Maybe Harrison has an answer to that, but as far as I can see in the chapter, he’s not even aware of it.

In a later chapter he asks,

Why “biblical archaeology” anyway? The name alone rings alarm bells in the skeptic’s mind. In archaeology, one can’t force the artifacts to conform to a religion no matter what the artifacts are and still claim to be a scientist.

Apparently he thinks that’s what biblical archaeology is about. That challenge has an incredibly easy answer, too simple and obvious even to waste time on here.

It’s like that almost all the way through the book: questions raised and dropped, with apparently no awareness that they have answers.

Harrison calls himself a skeptic, and puts that forth as a high ideal. Near the end of the book, though, he says,

Two questions can determine if you are ready and able to be a good skeptic: (1) are you willing to ask questions when confronted by an important idea? and (2) Are you brave enough to accept the answer—or recognize the absence of an answer—no matter how unsettling it may be to the emotional investment in your current worldview?

He passes the first test. I don’t see much sign that he passes the second. How can one bravely face answers when one forces a thousand or more questions into a few hundred pages? They’re not all bad questions. They’re just fragenblitzen: impatient, rushed, and leaving the false impression that the questions don’t have answers.

It’s almost as if he thought that if there were a God who created the universe, and who was thus the deepest explanation for the way things are the way they are, he should be reducible to 50 simple questions. His hundreds more questions show that even he knows better than that. If only they showed that he was willing to give those questions the time and attention they deserve.

Instead he has said in effect, “I’ve got a bunch of hard questions. I can’t come up with the answers in my own mind. Therefore they don’t have answers.” And he calls that skepticism, and thinks it’s an admirable sort of thing we should all emulate.

I’d like to sit down with him and work one of his questions through to a patient and reasoned end. And then maybe another. And another. I’d like to see him pass his second test. I think he’d find there are answers. They might be unsettling to the emotional investment he’s made in his worldview. On the other hand, he might find it rewarding to discover there’s a God in heaven who loves him and his questions, too.

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4 thoughts on “Fifty or a Thousand Simple Questions for Every Christian

  1. When it comes to big questions, it’s usually fine to say “I don’t know.”

    If they ask why you believe something when you don’t really know, you just point out that nobody has 100% certainty. If we did, we wouldn’t be talking about belief at all, but knowledge.

  2. The first psrt of that is true enough. I don’t know how it applies here, though, since we do have good answers to most of Harrison’s questions. The nature of God himself is not entirely in reach, of course, but we know it in part, enough to be able to answer the kinds of questions he has asked. The problem isn’t the questions, it’s his breathless conclusion that since they are so numerous and he doesn’t have the answers, there probably aren’t any.

    The dichotomy you state between belief and certainty sounds suspiciously like the old canard that faith is separate from knowledge. I suggest you be careful to avoid that error.

  3. From the OP:

    Harrison calls himself a skeptic, and puts that forth as a high ideal. Near the end of the book, though, he says,

    “Two questions can determine if you are ready and able to be a good skeptic: (1) are you willing to ask questions when confronted by an important idea? and (2) Are you brave enough to accept the answer—or recognize the absence of an answer—no matter how unsettling it may be to the emotional investment in your current worldview?”

    I’m wondering. Does Harrison have a well-defined world view or is he just trying to undermine Christian theism? (I suspect it’s the latter.) In other words, does he define and develop skepticism as a world view?

  4. Very interesting review – thank you for taking the time to present the problems that are not in the questions but in approach. I hope that somehow the author might see your comments and really consider them.

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