John Lennox does not fit the image of a typical evangelist.
A mathematics professor at Oxford University, the Co Armagh man has made a name for himself off-campus by taking on some leading atheist figures in public head-to-head debates, expounding and justifying his own Christian faith.
He has debated Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins in the past, and has now entered the fray with Florida State University academic Professor Michael Ruse.
They met before a live audience in London on July 18, and the debate was then posted on video-sharing website YouTube on September 7. Since then it has been watched about 18,000 times – and here the News Letter takes a look at the spirited-but-civil clash.
Central to Prof Lennox worldview is this: “Faith is part and parcel of my life as an intellectual and a scientist. And my Christian faith consists, not in faith as a leap into the unknown, it is evidence-based commitment.”
Quoting fellow Ulster intellectual CS Lewis, Lennox said: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature. And they expected law in nature because they believed in a law-giver.”
Ruse agreed the scientific revolution owes much to the men of Christian faith who largely drove it, noting that 16th and 17th centuries thinkers looked on the world as a “machine made by the divine engineer” as they sought to unravel it. But as time went on scientists “retired” God, dropping Him from consideration.
Birmingham-born Prof Ruse’s backround is Quakerism, but he began to lose faith at around age 21 and today tends towards agnosticism.
Ruse said if the universe was indeed designed, then “you have some questions to ask about the designer”.
He said: “I can’t believe that any God who cared a bit about human beings would have invented a world which allows haemorrhoids,” he said.
And turning to the question of morality, Ruse asked about the existence of evil – why, for example, was it more important to allow Heinrich Himmler his free will than to save the life of Anne Frank?
Lennox agreed the question of evil is an extremely hard one, but said atheism has no good answer. Because whilst it might offer a form of explanation – that the universe is just pitiless, with no justice, and that’s all – it offers no solution for “the suffering and the pain”.
“I’d sit where you sit Michael, if I didn’t believe in the final judgement,” he said.
“I don’t think Himmler is going to get away with it... and when we see what God eventually does with the Anne Franks of this world, we mightn’t have such severe questions.”
The crucifixion of Christ shows that “God hasn’t remained distant from this problem”, and offers us “grounds for hope” he said.
At another point, he also declared that he believes literally in Gospel miracles such as water into wine.
“I don’t believe it broke the laws of nature,” he said.
“This is God feeding a new event in – the laws of nature can’t say anything to that.”
Ruse said: “I just feel John that you’re reducing the Gospels to the level of Grimm’s fairytales. Let me be rather rude about this – I think you’re downgrading a tremendously important story to one of David Copperfield.”
Despite his academic focus upon reason and evidence, at one point Lennox cautioned against the “dangerously false” idea that “science is the only way to truth”.
He also cited the experience he and others have had of testing what Christ has promised in their own personal lives – namely peace and a “new power” – and finding that it passed the test for them.
Compering the event was Christian radio host Justin Brierley, who spoke to the News Letter afterwards.
As to who won the debate, he said: “We didn’t do a vote to see where the audience felt the best arguments lay.
“Possibly it might be fair to say the atmosphere in the room felt like probably they were more favourable in the end to John Lennox’s view.”
The debate was part of a series organised by Premier Christian Radio called ‘The Big Conversation’.
It has also included figures such as Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, Anglican minister and radio/TV presenter Richard Coles, Australian philosopher Peter Singer, and illusionist Derren Brown.
To watch to the debate, CLICK HERE.