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Many of the sharpest and most influential thinkers in England during the first years of the 20th century were outspoken in their skepticism toward the central claims of Christianity. Men such as Robert Blatchford (1851-1943) leveled a number of forceful arguments against Christian doctrine, relying on historical, scientific, and sociological research to bolster their perspectives.

Into this arena of prominent, published writers and thinkers marched 29-year-old G. K. Chesterton.

Now, it is hard to think of Chesterton as if he were the faithful “David” going forward to battle the skeptical “Goliath,” primarily because Chesterton physically resembled a jolly giant, not a tiny shepherd boy. Nevertheless, when you consider that Chesterton’s age was nearly half that of his opponents, you might be amazed at the skill with which he answered the most common objections to Christianity in his day.

In an essay entitled, “Christianity and Rationalism,” Chesterton went public with his Christian faith, and he did so by using the skeptical arguments of Blatchford as the very reasons he subscribed to Christianity. Watch how Chesterton flipped four common arguments against Christianity upside down. 

Argument #1: There are many ancient mythological accounts that parallel the Christian story.

Chesterton’s Response: If a story appears repeatedly in various cultures, might it point to something real?

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous stroll with a still skeptical C. S. Lewis, Tolkien made the case that Christianity was the myth that really happened. It was the true myth to which all the other stories were pointing. Tolkien’s logic helped Lewis come to faith. But that line of logic wasn’t new with Tolkien. He was echoing Chesterton’s perspective from two decades before.

 “If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumors and perversions of the Christian God? If the center of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the center have a muddled version of that fact?… When learned skeptics come to me and say, ‘Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a story of Incarnation?’ I should reply: ‘Speaking as an unlearned person, I don’t know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn’t.’”

Argument #2: Christianity is a gloomy and ascetic religion that causes people to give up their home and happiness and sacrifice their health or sexuality.

Chesterton’s response: If countless people abandon normalcy to pursue the magnificent, might it be that such a reality, in fact, exists?

Rather than seeing Christianity’s call to self-denial as a reason to dismiss it, Chesterton saw the devotion of ascetic Christians as evidence for the truly supernatural experience of conversion.

“The very oddity and completeness of… surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves.”

“Mr. Blatchford tries to prove that there is no such thing by proving that there are people who live on nothing else,” Chesterton wrote. In other words, the critics were trying to prove that there is no real spiritual experience at the heart of Christianity by pointing to people who seemed to survive on nothing else but their spiritual experience. That’s why Chesterton saw the impulse toward self-denial as a reason to take their truth claims seriously.

“When the learned skeptic says to me: ‘Christian saints gave up love and liberty for this one rapture of Christianity,’ I reply, ‘I should have been surprised if they hadn’t.’”

Argument #3. Christianity has produced tumult and cruelty in the world. 

Chesterton’s response: If the vision of eternal life “upsets values and creates a kind of cruel rush,” might it be that the vision indicates a real truth?

Chesterton noted that masses of good, common men act with a measure of cruelty whenever something they value is in peril – the food of their children, or the independence of their country. Furthermore:

“When something is set before them that is not only enormously valuable, but also quite new, the sudden vision, the chance of winning it, the chance of losing it, drive them mad. It has the same effect … that the finding of gold has in the economic world. It upsets values, and creates a kind of cruel rush.”

Note that Chesterton was not excusing the cruelty or tumult, only demonstrating why common people may act in these surprising ways. He points to the excesses of the French Revolution in pursuit of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as a demonstration of the preciousness of those values. “What if Christianity was yet more maddening because it was yet more precious?” he asked, contrasting the “colossal realism” of Christianity to the “eternal sentimentality” of secularism.

“When the learned skeptic says: ‘Christianity produced wars and persecutions,’ we shall reply: ‘Naturally.’

Argument #4: The Hebrew and Christian accounts of God are tribal, unsophisticated and much too attached to particular locations.

Chesterton’s Response: If the Old Testament accounts of God are down-to-earth and unsophisticated, might that very fact indicate their validity?

Chesterton made the case that the Old Testament accounts of God’s revelation were credible precisely because they did not come to us as “cosmic philosophy.” The skeptics should turn their skepticism toward anachronistic notions of God being a cosmic force or energy.

“If Moses had said God was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary. As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see something extraordinary…. When the learned skeptic says: ‘The visions of the Old Testament were local, and rustic, and grotesque,’ we shall answer: ‘Of course. They were genuine.’”

Conclusion

Chesterton did not dismiss the arguments against Christianity. He recognized the truth in each objection, but then he turned the objection inside out in order to make a case against the skeptic. His conclusion is just as memorable as his defense, with a brilliant twist at the end:

“Thus…the reasons that I have for believing in Christianity are, in very many cases, to repeat those arguments which Mr. Blatchford, in some strange way, seems to regard as arguments against it. His book is really rich and powerful. He has undoubtedly set up these four great guns of which I have spoken. I have nothing to say against the size and ammunition of the guns. I only say that by some accident of arrangement he has set up those four pieces of artillery with the tails pointing at me and the mouths pointing at himself. If I were not so humane, I should say: ‘Gentlemen of the Secularist Guard, fire first.’”

~~~~~

This post was co-written with Randy Huff, a Kansas native who has lived in six different states with his wife, Jane, and their two sons. That journey led him to serve in student life for a high school and two Bible colleges, lead church music, and find a love for Chesterton while writing an MA thesis on GKC’s family apologetic. He also works in the construction industry, currently employed in Alaska, where he serves as an interim pastor in North Pole.


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22 thoughts on “How a 29-Year-Old G. K. Chesterton Flipped 4 Arguments Against Christianity Upside-Down”

  1. SlowBro says:

    Doesn’t argument #1 also say that these ancient mythological accounts pre-date the time of Christ? I just don’t know if those myths are precisely the same as the story of Jesus or if they just have similarities. Just because two stories have similarities to one another doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same story and that one author necessarily plagiarized the other. It simply means they’re similar stories. Correlation is not causation.

    And I also know the story of Jesus has corroborating non-Christian witnesses; are there any corroborating non-Kaffirs for their myths? Likely not.

    1. Randy says:

      I did not understand the reference to legend and myth to indicate cause but rather the idea of an innate reality. As in CS Lewis’ Narnia “deep magic”, the world is such that an Incarnation is demanded. Therefore, GKC is saying, it makes sense, if this Christian understanding if reality be true, that all kinds if incarnation myths would spring up. It is the deepest answer of which we can conceive, and Christ made it real.

      1. SlowBro says:

        That’s profound, but you can’t ignore the potential causal component, either. The myths of Tammuz in Mesopotamia, Adonis in Syria, Attis in Asia Minor, and Horus in Egypt, ostensibly all pre-date Jesus’ birth.
        http://www.gotquestions.org/Jesus-myth.html

        I still say to those people who raise this objection, correlation is not causation. Just because a myth may (or may not!) have similarities does not mean it is the same story.

        There is lots of discussion on this objection if you look for it. Start at the link I just pasted.

        1. Randy says:

          I’ll take a look. I misunderstood your comment on time –sorry. Now I see it, but would maintain that from a natural law standpoint it does not present a problem at all. Incarnation, I would contend, is ‘written in’ and as such would show up anywhere, anytime in the fallen world.

          As to correlation-causation, I can’t see how that applies here. He is not saying there was cause at all in that sense, just that the inherent similarities point to an actual reality. What do I keep missing?

          1. Randy says:

            SlowBro Friend,
            On the road, I replied on the fly in my last comment. As to myths that predate Christ, again, to me that only strengthens the point GKC is trying to make. The article you posted, I’m sure you know, substantiates the veracity of the historical Jesus over against the claims that he is a mere mythical copy.
            As to correlation-causation, I’ll take one more stab at that. :) I would maintain that GKC ( and I myself) means to say that the only cause involved is created reality as an expression of the magnificent and infinite being of the Living God. Thus, since in this world as it is, fallen creatures will need redemption and the only means to that end is incarnation, such notions are deeply imbedded in created reality and will rise to the surface. This will happen irrespective of special revelation as such — it just IS. The observation that there are pagan myths that relate in some fashion to the life of Christ and the way we understand it demonstrates this truth, if in fact we take Christ to be who he said he was. Of course, if he is not who he said he was then we still do not know why the universality of such ideas of incarnation. An that, to me suggests again that, as Trevin related in the lead in, that Christ is the True myth, the reality that gives vision to the refracted picture seen throughout time and cultures. That may help in some way — I hope so. I greatly enjoy these discussions when time allows. Blessings!

            1. SlowBro says:

              “As to myths that predate Christ, again, to me that only strengthens the point GKC is trying to make.”

              Because it’s “written in”? That does connect back to GKC.

              “The article you posted, I’m sure you know, substantiates the veracity of the historical Jesus over against the claims that he is a mere mythical copy.”

              Correct, which is why I shared it. I am a born-again disciple of Jesus :-D

              Correlation/causation: The point I’m trying to make — to non-believers, not you — is just because a story is similar does not mean it is the source for another story.

              1. Randy says:

                Thanks, friend. I realized thatblatwr. Somehow on the first read I thought you were saying the critique was well ground. My mistake. Blessings!

  2. Philmonomer says:

    With regard to #2, #3, and #4, if you accept that they are good arguments for Christianity, then they are also good arguments (possibly even better arguments?) for Islam.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I recommend you to the full essay, rather than my summaries, because I believe the force his arguments is clearer and less apt to misunderstanding. Having read much of Chesterton, I can imagine how he would address the Islam question, but I’ll leave that to other readers for now.

      The main point of #3 (regarding war and persecution) is the most easily-misunderstood part of his post, primarily because his point is not to justify wars and persecutions, but merely to demonstrate that most of these take place FOR something that has been discovered. Hence his use of the French Revolution as a case in point.

      Chesterton is not saying that Christianity’s involvement in wars and persecutions is the reason it must be the right religion, only that its involvement in wars and persecutions cannot be put forth as the primary reason it is proved wrong. One does not have to agree with the French Revolution or justify all the deeds associated with it, but one can admit that the problems with the Revolution do not mean there is no such thing as “equality” or “liberty” worth fighting for. In other words, you cannot use the bad side of the Revolution to prove that there was “nothing to it” – the way that some use the wrong acts of past Christians.

  3. Hugh McCann says:

    But sirs, Mr Chesterton was no Christian. He was a devout Roman Catholic.

    1. Randy says:

      I can be sympathetic to your protest, friend, but would only mention that he was not a “devout Roman Catholic” at the time of this writing. Said conversion occurred 16 years later. Can value be found here even if one believes R.C. are not true Christians? I’m this case it seems so.

      1. Hugh McCann says:

        True enough, Randy. He was in the pre-poped state in the C of E.

        And can you & Mr Wax not find Bible believing saints (read: Reformed, Protestant) who actually give us biblical, divinely-inspired reasoning, as opposed to the smart but carnal variety of Mr Chesterton?

        The prevalence here of the likes of GKC, CS Lewis, or JRR Tolkien bespeaks a certain fascination with carnal reasoning and magical mysteries unbefitting confessing Protestants.

        1. Randy says:

          You cannot know how sympathetic I am to your protest, friend. I grew up in a beloved, somewhat fundamentalist, somewhat sectarian Bible-believing Wesleyan/Methodist country church. And my beloved and sainted pastor/scholar/prayer warrior once joined the local Catholic Priest on the platform of our small town community service.
          I suppose we cannot agree, but I want to reply in a good spirit nonetheless. You objected that GKC was not Christian because he was Catholic. I replied that he was not yet Catholic, which you conceded. Cannot this let us allow that his words had value to help us all since, on your perspective, they were not directly tainted (yet) by catholic persuasion?

          I have encountered this kind of animus to Catholicism — feel it myself. But I am unable to think that every word of RC in our world is equal to zero. No more can I believe that none are within the great body of Christ in which we share. As to GKC and others using carnal reasoning and such, I know not how to answer except to say that if this is your conviction, I can respect it.

          For me, Chesterton spoke in amazing and prophetic ways to his culture from the pages of its major newspapers, its radio, and in its prominent debate forums. His objections to modernistic philosophy are so prescient as to be stunning. You can find them very helpfully displayed in a great many places, not least in the beginning section of his amazing intro. to a commentary on the book of Job. And as to reformed Protestantism, two of the most prominent and edifying ministers of our day, John Piper and Ravi Zacharias, use an appreciate Chesterton. We all have to live, it seems, in a humble and painful tension on some of these matters. I do not know if any of that means anything to your objection and that is fine — I do not want to argue. I have read a great deal of GKC and find him greatly helpful in so many respects and of course, I sometimes find myself overlooking the blatant Catholicism. I have not been able to believe that it poisons the lot, however. Blessings, and prayers appreciated!

          1. Hugh McCann says:

            Randy,

            Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I recognize that Englishmen such as GKC (along with Newman, Lewis, Tolkien, et. al.) write and think well at times. Perhaps the brethren such as Piper & Ravi have erred, however, being seduced by the siren song of worldly sages. Many without faith can see through the stupidity of unbelievers’ positions on a host of issues. Many a papist can do so eloquently and convincingly. So too, could the wisecracking Christopher Hitchens, the late atheist who well bashed Islamism. But the enemies of my enemies are not necessarily good role models, much less, safe guides.

            What are we called to? To proclaim Christ and him crucified.

            I prefer the more biblical and prosaic Reformers such as Tyndale & Cranmer, later Anglicans like Ryle, Simeon, & Bridges, and the Baptists Spurgeon & Gill. Perhaps not as sweet of song, or “deep” in thinking, but infinitely more edifying at the end of the day.

            The most cogent papist is still a papist. And whether in his Anglican salad days, or later, in his full-blown idolatry (knowingly bowing before the god of works-righteousness), Chesterton may be able to out-write and outthink the liberal and evolutionary idiots around him, but he cannot provide us THE Solution.

        2. Jason says:

          Why would anyone want anything from the reformed “saints” when the inability of such an individual as Calvin to rightly understand scripture led to the situation in Geneva where a 10 year old girl was beheaded for striking her parent?

          Bad as the pope might have been, Calvin was far worse.

          Chesterton was a large man with a large and gracious heart, who mingled his defence of Christianity with a great love of the common people. I can see why a disciple of Calvin would have a problem with that.

          Randy is certainly far wiser than you.

          1. Hugh McCann says:

            It doesn’t take much for Randy to be wiser than I. The bar there is pretty low.

            I still take Calvin’s gospel over that of the pope.

            I hope Viola wrote on the shocking beliefs of G.K. Chesterton.

  4. Krystal Alcorta says:

    Randy Huff is an associate pastor in North Pole Alaska? Where Randy? We’re in North Pole AK!

    1. Randy says:

      I serve as interim pastor at North Pole Missionary Chapel on Dawson Rd.

  5. Joe White says:

    Any chance the author would mind sharing his thesis on GKC’s Family Apologetic? I might be writing on a similar topic soon.

    1. Randy says:

      I’d be happy to share it, with the simple qualifier that you consider offering honest and helpful critique. :) I also recommend Alvaro da Silva’s “Brave New Family” , a compilation of GKC’s work on the family. Outstanding, and the intro. is worth the price of the book. If you send me an IM on FB I’ll reply with a way I can the thesis to you. Work?

      1. Hugh McCann says:

        Will you likewise be reporting on his reentry into Anglicanism (via his Mrs) and his subsequent poping?

        The facts that Chesterton hated modernity, was glib, and espoused conservative values in a literate way mustn’t cloud our thinking about his apostasy from the faith.

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