I am a Classics Ph.D. student at UC Irvine whose research focuses on the history, literature, and languages of the Roman Empire during the 1st-2nd centuries CE. In particular, I study the intersection of Judaic, Greek, and Roman culture during this period, and ancient literature that was written in Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.
I became involved in counter-apologetics in 2010-2012, when I was a Classics M.A. student at the University of Arizona. There I encountered Christian apologist Cliffe Knechtle, who would visit the campus every year with a camera crew, and would argue with UofA students about the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, particularly pertaining to the miracles and teachings of Jesus.
What was surprising to me during his visits was the way that Knechtle would try to use “historical evidence” to prove the miracles of the Bible and convert people to his religion. There are several Pagan miracles that are attested in Greco-Roman literature, and yet no serious Classics scholar that I am aware of argues that they can be proven using ancient texts, like the Bible. Nevertheless, Knechtle would make arguments pertaining to the same texts and time period that I was researching in my graduate studies (1st-2nd centuries CE), to attempt to “prove” the miracles of Christianity. As a graduate student who was independently looking at the same evidence and issues as Knechtle, I found that I strongly disagreed with his conclusions, and likewise identified a number of factual errors in his arguments.
What was most disturbing about Knechtle, however, was the aggressiveness with which he would target people who did not ascribe to the truth of Christianity. For example, Knechtle once told a friend of mine (17:35) “You are so intellectually hypocritical, it’s scary!” simply because he did not believe that Jesus’ miracles could be proven with ancient texts. Likewise, Knechtle would make a number of arguments about the authorship and reliability of the Bible that few people would be able to fact-check without training in Classical antiquity and Biblical Studies. In short, Knechtle would bombard undergraduate students with a bunch of “facts” that they were unable to verify (many of which included misinformation), all for the sake of rhetorically convincing people of his religion.
If Knechtle’s apologetics ministry had been an isolated incident, I would probably have ignored Christian apologetics. However, when I did more research, I learned that there are several professional apologists–such as William Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona–who employ similar rhetoric about “historical evidence” proving their religion. These same apologists work at faith-based universities, with doctrinal statements that dogmatically affirm the truth of Christianity. I had never seen such religious agendas in my own field of Classics, and I found it very troubling that these apologists were making arguments (many of which I disagreed with) about the same time period that I study.
As someone who studies the ancient Mediterranean world, I felt that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines while these kinds of claims were being made about my area of academic research. And so, I started Κέλσος as a resource to fact-check and evaluate the claims made by many religious apologists. Below is a 4-step explanation of why I started this blog and why I think that it is important for secular scholars to engage in counter-apologetics.
1. What is apologetics?
The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning “speech in defense,” and has also come to be associated, more specifically, with the intellectual, academic, or rhetorical process of defending particular religious doctrines and traditions. In the case of modern Christian apologetics, multiple Christian denominations and individuals have taken different approaches to defending Christianity :
- Classical apologetics employs the standard theological and philosophical arguments for God’s existence–such as ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments–and is grounded in the natural theology of early Christian apologists, such as Anselm and Aquinas.
- Evidential apologetics relies on empirical evidence pertaining to history and archaeology–particularly when defending the Bible and the origins of the Christian faith–and can also incorporate other empirical evidence of the supernatural, such as prophecy, miracles, and cosmological/biological design.
- Presuppositional apologetics asserts that belief in God and the truth of the Bible are fundamental assumptions in order for the world to be intelligible. From these assumptions, presuppositional apologetics argues against non-Christian worldviews, and maintains that they are unable to give a complete or coherent account of the reality that we live in.
Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of Christian apologetics, it is one thing to be persuaded that Christianity is true, and quite another to claim that non-believers are intellectually dishonest or misinformed for doubting Christianity.
2. What is aggressive apologetics?
As I noted above, one thing that surprised me during Cliffe Knechtle’s visits to the University of Arizona was the aggressiveness with which he would argue against non-Christian students. Knechtle would frequently include suggestions, or even outright statements, that non-Christians doubted the religion because of “intellectual dishonesty.” When I did more research, I learned that Knechtle was not alone in this behavior.
Consider some of the following statements made in Christian apologetics about non-Christians and those who do not convert to the religion:
“I personally have never heard a single individual–who has honestly considered the evidence–deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of men. The evidence confirming the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ is overwhelmingly conclusive to any honest, objective seeker after truth. However, not all–not even the majority–of those to whom I have spoken have accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. This is not because they were unable to believe–they were simply unwilling to believe!”
“I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures.”
“Sometimes it’s moral issues. They don’t want to be constrained by the traditional Jesus, who calls them to a life of holiness. One friend of mine finally acknowledged that Jesus rose from the dead, but he still won’t become a Christian because he said he wanted to be the master of his own life–that’s the exact way he put it. So in many cases–not all–it’s a heart issue, not a head issue.”
“We must make clear to them [unbelievers] beyond a shadow of a doubt that if they reject the Lord of Glory, it will be by willful refusal to accept his Grace, not because His Word is incapable of withstanding the most searching intellectual examination.”
3. Apologetics as a method of proving the dishonesty and sinfulness of unbelievers
Why all of the aggressiveness in the quotes above? Why do many apologists feel the need, not only to defend their religion, but to further prove that those who don’t believe are ignorant or dishonest?
Here, I think it is important to remember some of the historical teachings of the Christian religion. Most Christians have historically believed in the concept of Hell (or at least some kind of final judgement), and that non-believers will be punished as “sinners” for their unbelief. Consider some of the following verses from the Bible, for example:
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction…”
(2 Thessalonians 1:7-9)
“The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.”
“Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Because apologetics seeks to defend orthodox Christian teachings, that can also include defending the view that unbelievers are “sinners.” As Christian apologist Owen Anderson in The Clarity of God’s Existence (pg. 2) explains:
“The Christian religion claims that all persons should believe in God, and that the failure to do so is one of the sins … for which Christ died … Historic Christianity has maintained that unbelief is a sin.”
Nevertheless, in modern times, I think that it is becoming less and less fashionable for apologists to outright call non-Christians “sinners.” There is just something too dogmatic and Medieval about targeting unbelievers in that way.
Instead, accusing non-Christians of being “intellectually dishonest” or having “heart issues” or “creating intellectual smokescreens to cover up for spiritual failures” has become a nuanced way of accusing unbelievers of being sinners. Such descriptions are meant to imply that non-Christians don’t believe, not because of intellectual doubt, but because they are trying to create an excuse for covering up their sins.
4. Why I started Κέλσος
“An apologetic may also be defined in terms of its aggressiveness. A ‘soft’ apologetic is merely an attempt to defend the rationality of accepting a worldview; a ‘hard’ apologetic is a much more ambitious attempt to demonstrate the irrationality of rejecting that worldview.”
I started Κέλσος to particularly combat these ‘hard’ kinds of apologetics. It is my view that a reasonable person can look at all of the evidence for the Christian faith–including its history, sacred scriptures, and theological arguments–and still walk away intellectually unconvinced of the religion’s core claims. Many scholarly experts of the religion have done so, such as Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman, and even my own Religious Studies mentor Christine Thomas.
What I found during Cliffe Knechtle’s visits to UofA, however, is that many people were unaware of these secular scholars, who would have strongly disagreed with Knechtle’s arguments. I likewise did Google searches and found that, while there are many apologetics resources online, there are far fewer secular resources. And so, I started this blog as a way to connect people with the views of secular scholars.
I should also note that this blog is not anti-Christian, or any other religion, per se, but is specifically designed to counter arguments that target non-believers. There are also many Christians who do not engage in such aggressive apologetics, such as NT scholars James McGrath and Michael Kok, whose views I also share and discuss on this blog.
 I should also note that, while I focus on responding to Christian apologetics on this blog, I likewise oppose aggressive apologetics for other world religions–such as Islam. The main reason why I focus on Christian apologetics on this blog is because: 1) my research area in Classics is in the 1st-2nd centuries CE, which covers Christianity’s origins, but not that of many other world religions, and 2) because Christian apologetics is far more prevalent in my home country, the United States. That said, the theological arguments discussed on this blog pertain to more than just Christian theism, and can be used to doubt the theological claims of other religions as well. I also hope at some point in the future to engage more in responding to the apologetics of other religions as I continue to write on this blog.