Would Christianity die out if Christians stopped witnessing? And if it did would that mean Christianity was false?
John Loftus just came up with a new argument against Christianity. He summarized it like this:
1) If Christianity is true then the Christian faith will probably not die out if Christians stop proselytizing.
(2) The Christian faith will probably die out if Christians stop proselytizing.
(3) Therefore Christianity is false.
It is, if nothing else, a novel argument.
When he offered this argument yesterday I countered with some initial criticisms. I’ll unpack those criticisms a bit more here.
The first point, as I noted, is that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. What does follow is:
(3′) Therefore, Christianity is probably false.
That correction is, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively minor course correction.
More serious are the problems with the two premises.
To begin with the phrase “if Christians stop proselytizing” is ambiguous. Here are a couple possible meanings:
(Scenario 1): Christians refrain from all active evangelism and mission. In that case a person could still share their faith if asked about it.
(Scenario 2): Christians refrain from ever referring to their faith to outsiders, even if asked. That would include shutting down all Christian publishing and broadcasting, shuttering the doors of all churches, and practicing the faith secretly underground.
Needless to say there is a huge difference between these two scenarios (and the many other possible meanings). And John is obliged to explain which one he means since the continued growth of Christianity would be more miraculous under some of these conditions than others.
Now here’s the way that John seems to be thinking about these matters. The idea is something like a corporate bonding event where office workers are asked to team up as buddies and take turns falling backward into the arms of the other person. Trusting the person by falling back into their arms is a way of forcing them to act to save you.
And so by the same token the church that refuses to proselytize (on either of these scenarios) would be forcing God’s hand. This would have the following result: if God exists then he will act supernaturally to save the church. If God does not exist then there is no God to save the church and it will die out, thereby establishing that God (probably) doesn’t exist.
The problem is that we have no reason to accept that probabilistic claim. In fact, we have an excellent reason to believe it is false and that God would, in fact, allow the church to go extinct.
In order to see why this is the case we need to keep in mind first that an essential hallmark of the church is that it is missional. Jesus commanded his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Thus, the church that refused to do that would be the church that was abdicating its right to be called the church.
Think about it like this. If Tony is paying the Mafia protection money to keep his pizza place running smoothly, then one can expect that if Tony fails to pay the protection money it will have negative repercussions for the pizzeria.
Okay, don’t get sidetracked by the fact that I compared God to a mafioso. I wasn’t comparing the problematic dimensions of the illustration (e.g. extortion). I was simply observing that people who fail to recognize their end of a contract/coevnant relationship face repercussions for doing so.
So if the visible church committed mass disobedience by refusing to fulfill the missio dei then you can expect the visible church would suffer. Perhaps it would disappear altogether.
Now you might be thinking: but how could God allow the church to disappear?
That’s a fair question and it brings us to the final problem with Loftus’s argument: he fails to distinguish the invisible and visible churches. Augustine was the first theologian to develop this important distinction at some length in response to the collapse of the Roman Empire. How could God’s empire — Rome — be falling to the barbarians? In response to this dilemma, Augustine distinguished between the temporal, shifting power institutions in history and the one Kingdom of God — that eternal city — which is unaffected by the shifting fortunes of history. Thus, even if visible kingdoms and institutions fade away, God’s kingdom remains eternal.
For these reasons Loftus’s argument is utterly without force. Even if he could establish that Christianity as we have known it would probably disappear if Christians stopped evangelizing (and he certainly hasn’t shown that), he would still have provided no reason to think that the disappearance was owing to the non-existence of God rather than the judgment of God on an unfaithful people.