Jesus or Nothing: Apologetics as Dilemma

o the heavens send a mixed message? Paul says the heavens reveal wrath (Romans 1). King David says the heavens reveal glory (Psalm 19). Which is it, glory or wrath?

Paul’s explains those who reject God, and refuse him the worship he is due, exchange glory for wrath. The Apostle outlines a resulting hedonism that follows their rejection of God in the end of the first chapter of Romans, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (Romans 1:24).

But it is not only the hedonists who exchange glory for wrath. Paul shows in Romans two that those who seek, through man-made religion, to establish their own righteousness apart from God’s revelation, exchange glory for wrath as well. Paul writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). In this way the hedonism of Romans one and the religious humanism of Romans two are different sides of the same coin.[1] They both result in a loss of glory and the promise of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).

Both incorrect responses to God’s revelation result in a loss of the very glory the heavens are designed to proclaim. Both sensuality and self-righteousness warrant the judgment of God. Both Romans one and Romans two lead us to Romans three, which tells us “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Both groups are under the wrath of God.

Every way of living apart from proper worship of the one true and living God, revealed in creation and Scripture, results in this loss of glory. The philosophy of nihilism provides a helpful framework for understanding humanity’s condition in light of rejecting God. Whether hedonistic or humanistic, both lead to a complete loss of purpose and meaning, a loss of glory.

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University, makes a similar case in his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion In a Globalized World. Volf describes the book as a programmatic essay based on a course he taught at Yale University with Prime Minister Tony Blair. The book outlines two forms of nihilism that result from inadequate views of ultimate reality.[2]

The first is an atheistic form he describes as “active nihilism,” embodied in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. The other is a religious form that he describes as “passive nihilism” connected to religious views that contain a diminished view of the world, which, as Volf explains, result in “squelching life’s energies and killing ordinary joys.”[3]

Volf’s categories are similar, though not identical, to what I’m using from Paul’s argument in Romans, that hedonism and humanism are the inevitable forms of nihilism that result from rejecting God. As aforementioned, these are two sides of the same coin. In this way the coin itself represents nihilism, and hedonism and humanism are just different expressions.

The remedy, Volf suggests, is to find a coherent way of seeing the world that offers meaning for both here and hereafter. “What I offer here is a Christian proposal,” Volf admits, “but I can point to ways in which you as a faithful adherent of a different world religion could be committed to its main elements; if I am correct, this will help us get along and live better in our common world.”[4]

Volf is seeking to situate his Christian solution as a plausible pathway for other religions. I do not think he demonstrates that the other ways of seeing God, the other religions or secular perspectives, are up to the task. It seems Volf implies as much at different points when he makes admissions like, ““But how are meaning and pleasure united? When I invoked God as Love, I signaled that I offer here a Christian answer.”[5] I will state what Volf is reticent to, apart from the Christian answer there is no adequate alternative. It’s Jesus or some form of nihilism, be it hedonism or humanism. These are humanity’s options.

It is the conflict between these two nihilisms that Volf sees as the chief obstacle to human flourishing. “The recursive struggle between these two nihilisms,” he says, “is one of the great antagonisms of our time.”[6] Volf argues that the end of both perspectives is despair, “Whether we dwell in modern equivalents of grand chateaus or live crammed in dilapidated flats beyond the railroad tracks, after we have wiped the horizon clean of transcendence we find ourselves saddled with the crushing burden of an unbearably light existence.”[7]

Volf’s book is helpful in that he seeks to show the reader that they are not forced into a choice between variant forms of nihilism, but rather have the true prospect of objective meaning that can undergird human values in the real world and allow us to transcend a nihilistic existence:

In choosing between meaning and pleasure we always make the wrong choice. Pleasure without meaning is vapid; meaning without pleasure is crushing. In its own way, each is nihilistic without the other. But we don’t need to choose between the two. The unity of meaning and pleasure, which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is love. This conviction cradles this entire book; it is the main reason why I believe that we need religion in a globalized world.[8]

Volf illustrates the inevitable junction, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, of man’s binary option between the Christian God and a nihilistic universe. We can live in worship of the creation, or we can seek to establish our own righteousness. Both end in despair. Both lead to wrath. The only force powerful enough to break through these idols and ideologies is the Christian gospel. The gospel is the only effective anti-nihilism.

This is why I think Christian apologetics should be primarily focused on two tasks: declaring the gospel and demonstrating the inevitable nihilism of alternative worldviews. Our message is similar to that of Moses in the Old Testament, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

King Solomon gives an example of this through his moving and often tragic life-story recorded in Ecclesiastes. Solomon set out to experience all that life had to offer from the peaks of wisdom to the valleys of sensual escapades, concluding that all is meaningless. His summary, after all has been said and done, is to remember the Creator, fear him, and keep his commands. It is in our relationship to the Creator that we find a way out of nihilism. Every other value system is vanity. It is this or nothing. It is the God who revealed himself in Christ or we are forever lost in nihilism.

[1] See John Frame Apologetics to the Glory of God, , p. 194. John Frame makes a similar argument of two worldviews, atheism and idolatry, resulting from rejecting God based on Romans 1. I’ve tried to model this approach in my books Jesus or Nothing (Crossway, 2014) and Christ or Chaos (Crossway, 2016).
[2] I’m using the term ultimate reality to refer to that which a person, or group of persons, sees as fundamental to reality. Other terms to get at this idea would include prime reality, metaphysics, or explicitly religious terms like Ātman, Allah, or God.
[3] Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014, 198.
[4] Volf., 29.
[5] Ibid., 202.
[6] Ibid., 201.
[7] Ibid., 202.
[8] Ibid., 200.