February 2, 2023

The Beauty and Complexity of Christianity with Justin Brierley

Inside This Episode

Justin Brierley is a legend in the world of Christian radio and podcasting. For 17 years, he’s managed to host compelling, enlightening, and mostly civil conversations between Christians and non-Christians, theists and atheists, and liberals and conservatives for his UK-based program called “Unbelievable?” On this episode, Justin discusses the most convincing arguments he’s heard against Christianity, how he’s resolved them in his own mind, and why after years of exploring Christianity with atheists, he still believes in the God of the Bible.

More about Justin: www.justinbrierley.com

Watch Justin’s latest video series: www.thebigconversation.show

Join The Community

Maybe God Newsletter

  • Be the first to know about new episodes
  • Exclusive content
  • Resources to help you reconstruct and grow your faith


Eric Huffman: Hello, and welcome to Maybe God. If you're joining us for the first time, I'm really glad that you're here. I want you to know that our mission at Maybe God is to inspire doubtful believers and hopeful skeptics to boldly seek answers to the most challenging faith questions by telling powerful and uplifting stories. We believe that wrestling with our questions and doubts together provides fuel for our faith and can lead us closer to God.

Before we begin, I just want to thank all of you who have already taken the time to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and other platforms where y'all listen. I know I say this all the time, but that truly is the easiest and most effective way to get the most people to find out about this podcast. If you haven't done this yet, we would be so grateful if you would support Maybe God by dropping your review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to this show.

Another great way to help get the word out is by sharing the content that we're posting to Instagram and Facebook and YouTube every week. So thank you in advance for all that you're doing for helping to spread the word about Maybe God and for all that you will continue to do. It means the world to us.

Now let's get started!

[00:01:08] <music>

Eric Huffman: On this episode of Maybe God, he's a legend in the world of Christian radio and podcasting, and the moderator of a weekly show where some of the brightest minds in the world go head to head on topics ranging from Christianity and atheism to science and sexuality.

Justin Brierley: I think God is calling us to do this kind of programming, to have these kinds of real honest conversations which don't result in the Christian always winning over the atheist necessarily but people will draw their own conclusions.

Eric Huffman: We turn the mic on unbelievable host Justin Brierley to hear the most convincing arguments he's ever heard against Christianity.

Justin Brierley: And I remember having a sleepless night thinking, "Gosh, this guy is making some good arguments. I wonder how this is gonna go down on the show."

Eric Huffman: How he's resolved them in his own mind, and why after 17 years of talking to atheists, he still believes in the God of the Bible.

Justin Brierley: For me, if the arrow of evidence is pointing anywhere, it's pointed towards some divine mind behind the universe rather than this blind indifference.

[00:02:11] <music>

Eric Huffman: You're listening to Maybe God. I'm Eric Huffman.

Five years ago this month, the Maybe God team embarked on this little venture into podcasting, which, frankly, was something we knew very little about at the time. I realized right away that I had a lot of learning to do. Leading a church and writing sermons and shepherding the flock is a lot different than chasing down guests and asking all the right questions in an interview and making sure all the technology works to produce a consistent show that people actually want to listen to.

After a few stumbles early on, I was desperate for some help figuring it all out. That's when someone told me I should start listening to and learning from this British guy who, despite his young age, had already become a legend in the world of Christian radio and podcasting.

Justin Brierley is the host of an award-winning weekly show on Premier Christian Radio called Unbelievable?. The show is based in the UK, but its audience spans the globe. And for the past 17 years, Justin has managed to host compelling, enlightening, and mostly civil conversations between Christians and non-Christians, theists and atheists, and liberals and conservatives.

When it comes to conducting interviews that are both polite and productive, no one on earth does it better than Justin. He's also the author of an amazing book called Unbelievable?: Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I'm Still a Christian.

So, Justin Brierley, welcome to Maybe God.

Justin Brierley: Well, thank you. I'm absolutely delighted to be joining you today. Thank you.

Eric Huffman: Well, thank you. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Just about Justin. Like who are you, where you're from, and a little bit about your family.

Justin Brierley: Well, I'm actually speaking to you from my home, which is in the Southeast of England. It's called Woking. I live here with my wife and four children. My wife's the Minister of a local church. And yeah, life is a kind of a mixture of church, the work I do with Christian Apologetics and Theology, recording shows, videos, writing articles, books, that kind of thing.

Eric Huffman: Wow. Were you raised Christian in a church?

Justin Brierley: Yeah, I very much grew up in a Christian family. And really, I suppose faith in a sense initially was kind of inherited from my parents. But it was in my late teens that it really became real for me. I had an experience really at a youth treat where God just came alive in a new way. And that really set me on the path to really taking faith seriously, though, it didn't mean there weren't big questions along the way.

I soon run into a lot of arguments against God when I hit university years, and I guess I wrestled with some of that in that time. And that was when I started to read people like C. S. Lewis and others to kind of look into some of those questions.

And I think a culmination of those questions, my interest in drama, I was really into theater and that kind of thing at university, kind of led me down the road of media and it eventually led to me starting at a Christian radio station and yeah, putting this idea out there of doing a weekly show where we bring Christians and non-Christians together. So that was kind of how it all started.

[00:06:23] <music>

Eric Huffman: So that was the vision from the very beginning, putting Christian against a non-Christian or a theist against an atheist, some two people that disagree fundamentally together in the same show on Christian radio.

Justin Brierley: Yeah, absolutely. Which is kind of quite a bold thing to do as you can imagine. And it's very hard to almost imagine it happening in many other contexts. You know, if I'm honest, we've had conversations sometimes about syndicating the show to us Christian stations.

But I don't think there's as much of an appetite for having that kind of interaction between Christians and non-Christians. Because you will hear if you tune into the Unbelievable Radio Show or podcast, very often a cogent case against Christianity being made. But hopefully equally a cogent case for Christianity on the other side.

So it's not what you would call pat apologetics. It's not just hear it all the answers. It's actually, well, here's a conversation. And conversations are complex and messy, and you don't always have the Christian winner clearly coming out or anything like that.

But I think it's valuable, because actually, that's the way normal conversations happen. And I think it's actually really valuable in helping both Christians and non-Christians. And that's been the joy of the show that it has attracted this very diverse audience of Christians or non-Christians to actually get talking and to actually engage in conversation, which is, I think, needed more than ever these days.

Eric Huffman: Did you face pushback sort of early on from your producers or maybe advertisers?

Justin Brierley: We faced some pushback from our audience, I'll be honest. Because before we, you know, started podcasting, it was just on radio. And I'll be honest, a number of listeners, when we started featuring atheists on the Christian radio station, they said, "Look, we've got plenty of atheists on the BBC. Do we need them on a Christian Radio station as well?"

I think, in the end, if I'm honest, people who didn't like the format, who didn't like to be challenged in that way, they kind of learned to skip the spot that it had on a Saturday. Others really loved it. You know, they said, "This is what we need to be doing. We need to be getting out of the Christian bubble, you know, we need to be having these conversations." So it drew the audience it drew.

It was really though, I'd say, as a podcast, that it really started to gather steam. Because I think at that point, the people who really wanted this, especially actually, in your neck of woods, in the US and elsewhere, who maybe didn't feel like they had this kind of a dialogue available to them, they suddenly picked it up and they started really loving it and engaging with it.

As I say, a lot of non-Christians. Every time we started to feature maybe a well-known atheist and they might share the podcast on their blog, suddenly I had a whole bunch of new non-Christian listeners joining us for the journey. And that was kind of interesting and challenging itself because I'd previously just been really speaking to a Christian audience. Now I was speaking, I knew to a Christian and non-Christian audience.

So I felt more than ever the need to try and be as unbiased as I could be as the moderator, neutral, trying to give both sides a fair say, so the non-Christian listening would feel this is a fair space for me to hear these arguments.

Eric Huffman: It's interesting. What do you think the difference is contextually between the UK where this could work on Christian radio? And you mentioned trying to potentially syndicate your radio show here in the US, what are the differences that you perceive in the American audience where there wasn't an appetite for that?

Justin Brierley: I think it's arguably true that in America it is more possible to live in more of a Christian bubble. I think that's less true than it was when the show began because in a way the internet and the advance of a kind of more post-Christian secular society has started to make the US a bit more like the UK.

But here in the UK, I think we've been aware that Christianity has been very much in the minority, and certainly sort of churchgoing Christianity in the minority for several decades. So I think it's more natural to have a show where you're putting these kinds of conversations together because you can't sort of be shielded from that so much in the UK context. We don't have a Bible Belt, per se.

If there is a bible belt, I probably live in it here in the UK. But even so it's nothing compared to steal what you get in the US in terms of the Christian subculture that effectively exists out there, if you know what I mean.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. Have you ever wrestled with concerns or worries about folks being led astray or away from Christ by, you know, the folks you're platforming and anti-Christian voices or non-Christian voices you're giving a megaphone to?

Justin Brierley: Absolutely. I think that's definitely been something I've been concerned about. And the concern comes, I think, with actually when I bring two guests together, am I doing a good enough job of matching them well? I wouldn't necessarily say to a baby Christian, "Go and listen to every episode of Unbelievable?. That's the best way to further your faith."

It depends on the individual. I mean, there are just some Christians who when they come to faith they kind of really yearn for and hunger after this kind of intellectual kind of approach and this kind of back and forth, and what they want to kind of really dig into it. Other Christians, you know, that's not going to be the road by which their faith is sustained. So it will depend on the individual.

I've always said to myself, I think, Look, I can't guarantee what impact this show will have on people. Everyone's on their own journey. And when they interact with Unbelievable?, they may be heading towards Christianity and Unbelievable? helps them in that journey, they may be heading away from Christianity and Unbelievable?, you know, the conversations seem to cement that journey. I've heard both of those stories frequently from listeners of the show.

And in the end, I just have to say to myself, I think God is calling us to do this kind of programming, to have these kinds of real honest conversations, which don't kind of result in the Christian always winning over the atheist necessarily, where people will draw their own conclusions. And I just have to leave it to God and the individuals who are listening and say, you know, that's up to them.

I'm glad to say there has been a lot of great fruit from the show. Most people who do say it has helped them to understand and defend and share their faith with confidence, people who have come through from atheism to Christianity in the show was maybe part of that journey in some way.

But as I say, that doesn't stop other people saying, "It didn't convince me, Justin," or, you know, "I was on my way out and Unbelievable?... I was more convinced by the non-Christian." So you take the good with the bad and you kind of leave it in God's hands as far as I'm concerned.

Eric Huffman: Right. I think the messiness of it is one of the best, most compelling things about your show. And some of what turns me off of old school Christian programming, the standard fair we got used to in the Christian world is that it's just kind of saccharine and neat and tidy and the Christian wins in the end, and the you know, atheist has egg on his face or whatever or comes to Jesus even better. That's not how these things work out in real life very often.

It's also part of what I appreciated about your book is just the admission that there's never been sort of this situation on your show in all the many hundreds of episodes you've done, where an unbeliever has seen the light, you know, on the air and come to Jesus in some kind of a dramatic moment, as much as we might want that.

Justin Brierley: But think of the ratings, Eric. Think of the ratings if you did get that story. If I'm honest, you know, when I first put the idea out there that I think that was kind of going around in my head, Ah, we'll see, you know, mass conversions, people coming to faith on it. It didn't happen as you say because I mean, as you quickly learn, you don't change someone's mind in one hour of conversation.

Eric Huffman: Absolutely.

Justin Brierley: In fact, most of the minds that are being changed are usually the listeners who are maybe quite open to it. I mean, most of the time, a lot of the atheists and Christians for that matter, I get on there, you know, they're pretty certain about what they believe and that they're not likely to change their views in the course of one conversation.

Eric Huffman: Right. I think that most often will happen off the air. But you never know, Justin. Keep trying. You might have that on-air conversion one day. We'll see. What are among all the arguments you've heard from, let's say the other side, non-Christian arguments against the existence of God or against the legitimacy of Christ or the Bible? What are the strongest arguments that you've heard or most compelling case that you've heard against what we profess as Christians?

Justin Brierley: Well, I think it probably is the one that most people run into at some point in their lives. And that's the problem of evil and suffering. I think that's always been the biggest hardest objection to God and to Christianity, and for good reason. It is incredibly hard. Especially when you come up against a real instance of what seems like gratuitous suffering or evil, and it's very hard to come to terms with why a good loving God, all-powerful God would allow that.

So we've done that kind of question many times on the show. You know, I've come kind of to my own place where I feel like I've found a sort of an intellectual place where I can reconcile that with God. But it never stops the questions being really raw and real when they're posed again, you know, by a new person, and especially when perhaps that's been part of someone's journey away from faith, you know, they've been through some trauma, maybe connected to being in church or whatever it is.

And I think that's really hard. I think sometimes related to that I suppose is the question of why hasn't the Christian church done better very often if it is inspired by God and led by the Holy Spirit. Why is it so often toxic for some people? And why is it had so many occasions when it has gone in the wrong direction and everything else? Again, those are critiques that are often hard to answer.

So I think it's those kinds of issues around the brokenness and the evil in the world in the way that Christianity often fails, actually, in sometimes doing what it's supposed to do and following the example of Jesus. Those are probably some of the tough ones.

Eric Huffman: Thank you. What about some of the individuals, the people that offer these counterarguments to Christianity? Who are the people that you find most compelling or convincing from that other side?

Justin Brierley: I think probably one of the most... the toughest questions have come from sometimes ex-Christians. In one case, I can think of, you know, an ex-Christian Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, who I'm sure you're familiar with, Eric, who's written some, you know, best-selling books that are highly critical of whether the New Testament can be trusted, the way that the New Testament documents came to us, the transmission of them, and those kinds of things.

Bart Ehrman is also a very skilled debater as well. So when he comes on the show, you know that he's gonna put up a good kind of fight against whoever you've got coming on the Christian side. He has his own story of having been a Christian and having lost his faith. So that all kind of mixes into it.

And I remember when I first had him on the show, and at the time his book, Misquoting Jesus, was a best seller. It was questioning the historicity of the New Testament documents, how do we know that we've really got the original words and so on. And I remember reading the book and having a sleepless night thinking, "Gosh, this guy's making some good arguments, I wonder how this is gonna go down on the show."

Bart Ehrman: My main points, I guess, could be summarized through a series of statements. We don't have the original copies of any of the books of the New Testament. What we have are copies that were made much later, in most cases, many centuries later. These copies all differ from one another, no two of them are exactly alike, which means scribes were changing the text.

We don't know how many changes they made in the text. We have over 5,000 manuscripts just in the Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written. In these over 5,000 copies, there are hundreds of thousands of differences. As I often put it to my students, there are more differences in these manuscripts that we have than there are words in the New Testament. So we're talking about extensive variation.

Most of these differences don't matter for anything, the majority of them probably do nothing more than show us that scribes in the ancient world can spell no better than my students can today.

Justin Brierley: And they need some of them probably don't even make a difference when it comes out in the translation of the English, the word order in the Greek, may not even come out in any way.

Bart Ehrman: Many of them, you can't translate it all of it. They simply make no difference whatsoever. But there are some differences that make a difference. And sometimes they make a lot of difference. Sometimes these changes affect how a passage is to be interpreted. Sometimes they affect the meaning of an entire book. Sometimes they affect the area of Christian doctrine. They'll involve some aspect of Christian theology.

And it's these big changes, which are the ones that I focus on, mainly in my book, to show people just how significant some of these problems can be.

Justin Brierley: In fact, when we did have him on the show, we had him opposite a New Testament scholar from Cambridge, Peter J. Williams.

Peter J. Williams: Well, in one sense, our views are the same in the sense that we will have roughly the same dates of documents from the time of writing of a New Testament book to its earliest copy. However, I think I would tend to see the glass as half full, whereas Bart would see it as half empty.

In fact, obviously, the gap that there is between the earliest copy of a New Testament writing and when it was written is less for most New Testament texts than it is for classical writings. So really I see this is a matter of a presentation. I think Bart tends to focus rhetorically on the negative, and on the issue of how much things change, whereas he doesn't focus as a matter on how much they stay the same despite copying.

So we're both agreed that a large number of these differences can be shown to be secondary. So the question really is, how many variants are there in the manuscripts which might seriously contend for being the original, how much uncertainty is there at that level? But I don't think that the uncertainty is anything like so great. And as I said earlier, even if we were to lose all of the Greek copies that there are of the New Testament, I think we'd still have tolerably good access to the original via translation.

If I could just say one more thing, that's that, I think sometimes there can be a method which says when we got so many differences in the manuscripts, that makes a strength of the transmission of the New Testament, namely the number of manuscripts into a weakness. Because if you had double the number of manuscripts, you'd have even more differences.

So, in a sense, the stronger the evidence for the New Testament becomes the more you could make an argument that isn't their uncertainty because there are so many variants. I just think we need to avoid that sort of way of reasoning.

Justin Brierley: And actually, you soon realize that there's always another side to every story. Peter J. Williams was able to show how, in fact, there's lots of reasons to really be encouraged and trust the transmission of the texts. As much as Bart paints some things as negative, you can also see them in a positive light.

So you know, it's always possible to kind of, if you only read one side of anything, you know, get a bit of a biased perspective on it. But certainly Bart also did a show, you know, with me on the problem of evil, and again, that's not as easy. It's not as easy to kind of turn to history and textual criticism and that kind of thing to answer that kind of question. It's going to be more of a philosophical, theological kind of answer.

Eric Huffman: Right. Personally how have you come to terms with that problem and how have you held to your faith, you know, hearing one argument after another that on these grounds that Christianity falls apart in the face of suffering and evil?

Justin Brierley: The first thing I would always want to say is that there are no easy answers to this. And if I was to stand here and say I discovered a perfect way of answering this, it would be foolish, because if you say that you've already kind of I think lost the argument. Because you have to approach this with humility and understand that when it comes to God, when it comes to evil, when it comes to human suffering, it's very hard to actually understand what's going on behind everything. We only have a very limited perspective on it.

The first thing I'd want to do with anyone who's actually going through that suffering is not given them a theodicy. I would rather sit with them, cry with them. You know, that's what people actually need most of the time. So I think that's just a word of caution to those who do want to leap in immediately with an answer.

But having said that, when it does come to the time for sort of those intellectual questions about why would God allow this, I guess I've come to the view, through a number of different scholars and thinkers on this that have helped me just kind of put the pieces together.

  1. S. Lewis, very influential on me. And the way in which just a very outset he points out really that if you're going to have a problem of evil, you kind of still need God. It's hard to get rid of God because by what are you measuring good and evil, right and wrong, justice? This comes to another sort of argument for the existence of God—the moral argument.

If you're going to say that there's something wrong with the world, you have to have a measure by which you can judge right and wrong. And it appears to me in a godless universe, in a naturalistic universe, it's very hard to say that such a thing is right and wrong or even evil exists. It only seems to make sense that very concept if there is a God that grounds the idea of morality, good and evil, right and wrong.

So that's kind of your very first point is that to have a problem of evil you kind of need a God that grounds the very concept.

Why would  God allow evil though? I mean, I think we've struggled to see from our perspective things that obviously are only open to God from a God's eye perspective on these things. I think though we can edge towards some kind of answers.

I think that for instance, the fact that a freedom is an important thing in human life means that there are obviously going to be situations in which we use our freedom for evil. Now, if God were to simply step in and overrule every action that humans ever took that led to evil outcomes, then we would just be robots, we'd be automatons. We would not have free will. And without free will, you don't really have what it means to be human. You can't love. Love is something that is freely given, freely received.

So at the very starting point, there's this kind of measure of freedom that God has given the world. And that for me seems to be a starting point to understand why we do live in a world where it's possible for things to go wrong, is because actually love is only possible in a world where things can go wrong. That kind of would be my starting point maybe if I was in a conversation about this. But there would be lots of other places I'd want to go as well with other things.

I mean, at the center of it for me, I would always want to end up with Jesus Christ and the fact that whether you think this is a good argument or not, when it comes to suffering and evil, in the Christian story, God is not distant from evil. This is not an abstract concept. He came and He experienced suffering, evil, rejection, humiliation, abuse.

And for me, that may be actually the one thing someone can hold on to if they're going through that, that God knows what it feels like. And that may still be a great mystery but it may be just enough for someone to kind of make sense of suffering, knowing that God has been through suffering and knows suffering. And in some mysterious way, as Christians, we are united with Christ, even in our suffering. That for me is a really significant thing.

Eric Huffman: You're not only a very skilled host and interviewer, you're actually a really good preacher. And I wrote a, quote, a sermon of yours that I watched. You were on fire. And it goes sort of in step with what you've just shared.

But you concluded a sermon that I saw online by saying, "But I see a very different universe to Richard Dawkins'." You've been talking about Dawkins and how the universe according to him is senseless, without meaning, just indifferent.

"And when I look around," you said, "I don't just see physical processes and natural laws. I see love," you said, "I see truth. I see beauty. I see hope. I see good and evil. I see a universe that's teeming with purpose and meaning."

I mean, that is a powerful message and another reminder you're a man of many talents. But I hear in that conviction that Christianity is maybe not the only way to make sense of suffering, but it's truly a massive part of what it means to be Christian is that suffering is... we find meaning in it. And more than that, we find God in the suffering, like in the suffering because we worship and follow a God who suffered.

Justin Brierley: That's really kind of you. I mean, when I've spoken on this issue, and you know, I've kind of tried to summarize quite often the contents of the book in a sermon or two. And for me, I think Richard Dawkins is actually a great foil for being able to talk about why Christianity can make sense of life, the universe, and everything because he is so quotable.

One of his famous quotes is, The universal, as we observe, it has precisely the properties we should expect if there is that button. No good, no evil, no purpose, nothing but blind, pitiless, indifference, is his famous quote.

And the thing is that when you actually go and look at the universe, it just doesn't look like that. I mean, both if you simply looked at the actual science of what the universe is telling us, the actual mechanics of what our best science tells us about the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the universe, the way that the universe is written in the language of mathematics, consciousness, the life itself and the extraordinary complexity that it took for us to be here, all of it submit, seems to me, not at all to tell you this is some indifferent universe. But goodness me, it's really weird that we're here at all. And why would that be?

For me, if the arrow of evidence pointing anywhere is pointed towards some kind of purpose, some divine mind behind the universe rather than this blinding difference. And likewise, even if you don't look out there in the universe, you look inside us.

As I was mentioning, there's this sense that humans do have this inherent dignity and value. And again, it's very hard to account for that on an atheistic worldview because we all experience beauty, love, justice, good, and evil as real things not just as kind of constructs of an unguided process.

So for me, I think, you know, Dawkins can be the preachers or evangelists best friend at times because he provides a perfect contrast so that you can say, Well, look, this is why the Christian story does make sense of us in ways that I just don't think a naturalistic atheistic can.

Eric Huffman: Right. I confess I'm quick to make a meme out of Richard Dawkins to borrow word from his book. You know, I think that is something... I've learned from you as well to be very cautious about getting too carried away with making caricatures of our ideological opponents.

Justin Brierley: Absolutely.

Eric Huffman: An example of this from your experience and what you learned from was how you had written off the multiverse argument as a counterargument to the fine-tuning of the universe. In other words, if you're listening to this, you don't know what I'm talking about.

Fine-tuning argument says like, everything was just so perfectly in the universe, was just so perfectly tuned or engineered to allow for not only life, but intelligent life, human life, and that this was all meant to be from the beginning in creation. And the multiverse argument sort of emerged, I don't know when, it feels recent, as an ideological opponent to that argument that many Christians were so proud of espousing.

But you found by interviewing an expert on the multiverse argument that Christians should be really quick to listen here on issues like these where we want to rush to assumptions.

Justin Brierley: Yeah, absolutely. I think I'd perhaps too hastily sort of written it off as just an attempt to get rid of the fine-tuning problem. A friend of the show, somebody's been on several times, an atheist who takes a lot of interest in these issues and does online videos called Skydive Phil, kind of he came on, and we were talking about this argument. And he was sort of wanted to make clear.

And I took away from it that actually there is at least a physical theory for how a multiverse could have developed. And therefore, it's not fair to simply label is as a desperate attempt to get rid of the fine-tuning problem. There's potentially a theory there.

Eric Huffman: Right.

Justin Brierley: Now, the problem, of course, is that there are still problems with the multiverse because-

Eric Huffman: Of course.

Justin Brierley: ...at one level, these theories are almost certainly impossible to prove empirically. Because if it's a multiverse, if it is other universes we're talking about, you'll never be able to actually physically observe those in any way. For some scientists that just rules it out of being science altogether. There are also quite complex reasons I could do about why at a philosophical level, lots of people think the multiverse theory just is very, very unlikely.

But no, you're absolutely right. I think too often in apologetics there is this danger of kind of leaping on what appears to be some great argument and thinking... And it's that Dunning-Kruger effect, isn't it, of you know enough to be dangerous.

Eric Huffman: Right.

Justin Brierley: But then you quickly learn, as you get further into the weeds, that ah actually there are other ways of looking at this, other arguments. And a bit of humility goes a long way, I think, in apologetics to make sure that you really know something before you start saying, I know it, you know.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. And even if you have the right argument, if you're arrogant about it, you'll lose your audience.

Justin Brierley: Absolutely.

Eric Huffman: You run the risk of alienating listeners. And that's one thing I've really looked up to you in terms of your ability to remain humble, remain quiet at times when I'm just screaming at my iPhone to some guest of yours. And you just sit there patiently and letting them talk.

Often I think it feels strategic. Like you send someone talking themselves into a corner of sorts and you just let them continue. But I think at the heart of it is just a genuine kindness in you that is deeply Christian, you know, I think and it makes you a very persuasive voice in the culture.

And every Christian wants to be persuasive, right? To some degree, we all want to persuade the culture around us and people around us toward Christ or some deeper understanding of Him. So I'd be interested in hearing what you think are some of the keys to sharing or defending the Christian faith in a more persuasive or compelling way. Like for Christians that are listening now, what have you learned?

Justin Brierley: Well, obviously, you know, we've already talked about the fact that there are good reasons to believe. I think there genuinely are good intellectual foundations for belief in God, for the historicity of Christianity. There are so many resources available now where you can look those up and learn and so on.

That's kind of one leg, if you like, of the stool. But it will be a very wobbly stool if you don't have the other legs, I think. And one of those legs is certainly what we've just been talking about, which is the willingness to actually listen to the other side. Because if you're not a listener, as well as someone who speaks then you just won't get an audience, I don't think. Not in today's culture. You will immediately be seen as someone who's just got an agenda to put across certain point of view. You're a salesperson basically for your thing. And you know, people don't like to feel like they're just evangelistic targets or whatever.

So I think it's got to be relational. Sadly, we live in a social media culture which militize against because we... most of these discussions tend to take place in that format. And unfortunately, it tends to just result in people getting more and more embedded in their own echo chamber or their own perspective. It's very hard, I think, to have a genuine kind of conversation in that format. It's possible—I think some people do actually—but it's rare.

So that's why I think actually a show like Unbelievable? is still quite important because it does try to model face-to-face kind of long-form gracious interaction, where you're taking the other person's perspective seriously, you're not dismissing it.

So the third leg of the stool, as it were, is that final bit of 1 Peter 3:15, which is that classic apologetics verse, "Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you about the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," because the reasons you give won't mean anything or land if they're not done in this atmosphere of gentleness and respect.

You know, there's an old saying, isn't there, that you can win the argument but lose the person. And we're not here to win arguments, we're here to win people. And you could lose the argument and do a better job of actually representing Christianity and making someone potentially want what's on offer actually.

If you put them off from the outset with the way you conduct yourself and so on, then they're not going to want what's on our faith. No matter how good your arguments are, they're not going to want to be like you. And in the end, people are a whole mixture of reasons for why they do or don't accept faith. It's very, very rarely a purely intellectual thing. There's going to be a lot going on in someone's psychology, background, environment. And the way you conduct yourself, I think, is much bigger part of that than people often realize.

Eric Huffman: It's a really great reminder. It's easier said than done. If I were to ask you to think of some of the more heated conversations when things got out of control, what comes to mind?

Justin Brierley: Well, it's funny you should say that because there's one that we haven't put out yet, which is going to be quite full on. We run a regular season of six shows called The Big Conversation from Unbelievable?. And these are ones that we do in partnership with John Templeton Foundation.

These are normally quite good, well-mannered sorts of academics, big thinkers discussing the big issues. As this one was. But it's going to be the first show of our next season coming out in April. And it's on the resurrection.

And Bart Ehrman is one of the guests on this one in the studio with another New Testament scholar called Justin Bass. And it's a sparky debate, I'll put it that way. I mean, we go to regular breaks in the shows. It's a moment to kind of pause and just kind of get set up for the next section.

And it was funny because we were getting to the end of one section and it was getting heated in the studio. I said, "Well, let's take a break," but Bart said, "We're just gonna have to arm wrestle for this and put his hand on the table."

Eric Huffman: Oh, that's good. Humor can go a long way.

Justin Brierley: We'll just break that up. There have been other occasions when I had to step in and maybe pause the recording stop because things were... One particular one that comes to mind was I had a Muslim and Christian guest in this case separated because one was in Studio one was on the phone line. But it was on a very... I mean, partly my fault for even hosting this kind of emotive subject for a Muslim. But it was on the historicity of Muhammad and that kind of thing. It kind of descended into name calling and a lot of kind of rhetoric and...

Eric Huffman: Got personal.

Justin Brierley: So it was one of those rare occasions where I had to kind of stop the recording, say, like, "Guys, we've got to come down here or else I'm not going to be able to carry on." I think a lot of listeners, if I'm honest, found it hard to listen to it. That's the way it goes sometimes.

I'm not against having some drama in the show. I mean, that can be a good thing. We all like to kind of feel like we're part of something that's exciting and a bit tantalizing. But I think it's about knowing sort of what the level is where that spills over into being something maybe unpleasant or unhelpful.

I avoid conflict myself. I'm not kind of someone who goes in to have arguments with people. So I'm a peacemaker. That's my natural mode. And I think on the show that comes out in those scenarios where I try to maybe find some common ground if I feel like it's going too far down the road of a lot of disagreement.

If I feel one party, one person is kind of maybe getting the brunt of things, even if they're the atheist or whatever in conversation, I might kind of come in on their side and start to sort of ask few questions on their behalf and sort of push it back. And likewise the other way.

So my hope is that I kind of act as a kind of a bonding agent that kind of makes hopefully what comes out of the show, in the end, something that's helpful for the listener. Or if we come to an impasse and we're butting our heads against a brick wall, that I can be the one who just "Okay, let's change the subject. Let's do something else."

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Justin Brierley: And that, for me, is what my role is. I'm not there to be the debater. I'm there to kind of help a good discussion debate happen..

Eric Huffman: Right. And you don't feel the need to put some kind of a superficial bow on things as if it's a kumbaya moment at the end of every episode and hey, we all actually agree? Because your guests don't, right? It's why you have them on.

And it's not that we all agree, it's that we disagree on these things but we can still see each other's intrinsic value as human beings, we can still respect each other and even love each other across these aisles.

Justin Brierley: Absolutely. Probably one of the most common ways in which I finish the show is saying, "Well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree."

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Justin Brierley: That's the nature of these things.

Eric Huffman: It's a funny story how I kind of discovered your podcast initially. It was when we were just getting started here at Maybe God. I had heard of Unbelievable? and you guys before that, but I'd never really tuned in. But after our first episode, which our first guest was Bart Campolo, Tony Campolo's son-

Bart Campolo: I have no idea who Jesus really was. I have no access to that guy. That's why when people are like, "What would Jesus do?" I go like, "Man, I don't even know what my mother would do and I know my mother." And I say, well, first of all, I don't think there is a God. So I don't think anyone gets to incarnate this God who doesn't exist. But the second thing is I don't have any compelling evidence that He was God incarnate.

Eric Huffman: Well, if He wasn't God incarnate, He said that He was, what does that make Him?

Bart Campolo: I don't know. I wasn't there. I know a guy in my neighborhood who says He's God incarnate. Like, He's not a liar, He's insane.

Eric Huffman: If He did say He was God, then He was clearly a crazy person.

Justin Brierley: Yes. But it doesn't mean He was mean, It doesn't mean he was a villain. Like He might have really thought He was God. He might really have thought that was true.

Eric Huffman: Well, you know, you can say the same thing for any villain.

Bart Campolo: No villains by definition know that they're lying to you and they do it to get something out of you.

Eric Huffman: Really?

Bart Campolo: Yeah. Like, you're not a villain if you're deluded. You're just deluded.

Eric Huffman: All right. I'm gonna let that one go. That's an interesting definition.

I don't know what happened to me. But that man set something off in me that I wasn't prepared for and his arguments to me were... It's not just that they were nonsensical or what have you. It sparked something in me because I had been misled by those very arguments when I was a college student. And he's now on a college campus.

I think I allowed it to trigger a lot of emotional stuff in me that I began demonstrating in the interview. I think I'd also been watching too much Cable News or Daily Wire or something where I wanted to eviscerate my opponent. It was really kind of a mess. I can't go back and listen to that episode now. It's one of our most listened-to episodes and it breaks my heart because I think it's maybe my worst interview for sure. And, you know, to many people who were-

Justin Brierley: In that scenario, Eric, were you just interviewing him? Because normally I'm the moderator, obviously. I've had Bart Campolo on my show, but it was in conversation with Sean McDowell. So in a sense, I didn't have to get too involved because Sean was doing the kind of the counter argue. Were you kind of essentially representing the Christian view?

Eric Huffman: I think I was. And so I think I took on the mantle of representing Christendom to this apostate or something, and it just went out of control. So anyway, in the aftermath of that, my producer and the team here, they were looking for resources for me to watch and learn from. That's where I really started to tune in to you and your show.

And one thing I remember learning early on is you never want to in any way misstate or misquote your... let's say anyone's really viewpoints. You never want to quote something back to them in a way that shows your own bias. You never want to misrepresent anyone's ideas back to them. And that's what I had, sort of in my emotional response to Bart Campolo, fallen into the trap of.

And you do the best job of as generously as possible sort of summarizing your guests' opinions on things. And when you feel like the other guests is not understanding what someone's saying, you'll sort of reframe it for them to make it through their filter in a way that it hadn't been getting to them.

Justin Brierley: Well, that's kind. Thank you. I think that that is something that has just kind of happened quite naturally. I think it's as much for me as for the audience when I do that maybe that little recap, if someone's taken a few minutes to explain quite a big idea, I'll then try and encapsulate it and then kind of hand it to the other guests to come to.

Eric Huffman: Some of the most, I think, heartbreaking conversations I've seen on your show involve like two different kinds of Christians. So you have these shows where you'll have a Christian to disagree. And it feels sometimes like we're just kind of airing our dirty laundry to the world, but that I understand this is a necessary thing, we have to have these conversations because not only is the world more divided, the church seems to be more divided than ever.

And I don't know if the church is just taking the world's lead and going, you know, dividing along left and right, or what is happening. But I know more and more when I go to conservative churches or liberal ones, it seems like I'm in two different tribes now. They're speaking different languages, there's different value systems and definitions, and talking to each other is our only way towards unity. So I appreciate that.

But do you have any concerns about the fracturing of the church and division within the church widening, let's say, in the 17 years, since you started the show?

Justin Brierley: Again, I think there is a difference between the UK and the USA here. I think the USA is big enough and has enough Christians to still kind of be able to have a kind of a bit of a silo mentality. So you have really distinct tribes that often bump up against each other and really critique and slag each other off.

In the UK, we don't quite have that luxury. There are different theological tribes, obviously, but they tend to do more work together. In my experience, they tend to kind of find the points of agreement more than the disagreement and do mission together. And for me, I think that's because we don't have the luxury of kind of all splitting out into our separate tribes, because there's not as many of them are. We kind of are more united in a sense against kind of what you might say is a bigger issue.

So I think that is going on. Has it got worse? I think the problem is that social media and the internet has happened in the last 17 years, and that has tended to accelerate the worst aspects of it. And you start to be shaped by those forms of media in ways that you maybe weren't before.

And for me, the problem is, you know, this is not just a religious thing, it's across our political and cultural ideological, you know, it has really sharpened and made money for these big internet media platforms by trying to amplify or effectively amplifying the most extreme voices. And it creates this kind of tribalism, culture wars, and everything else.

And I think the Christian church has just been sucked into that. So we tend to now amplify the most extreme voices. We tend to just have lots of arguments. And it saddens me in a way that Christian church has inevitably been sucked into that kind of tribalism and polarity that now exists in the world of social media and internet.

Eric Huffman: Right. My wife and I were both ordained United Methodist pastors and we lead in the United Methodist Church for over two decades and recently left the denomination. You know, you've talked on your show about the United Methodist Church. So I know you're aware. It's a very painful left, right split.

It was supposedly all about LGBTQ inclusion. I think it went a little deeper than that. But that aside, there was clearly a traditionalist versus progressive sort of divide. And you've recently tackled the subject of progressive Christianity. If you're willing to talk about this, I know this is a sensitive topic as it gets these days. But do you have any real concerns about what you see from progressive Christianity and its relationship to the deconstructionist movement or to decline in the church in general? What are you seeing there?

Justin Brierley: Yeah, I do. I do. And as I say, I mean, I tried to steer a car for line. The problem is that the Uber conservatives and the progressives that they're kind of cut from the same cloth. It's that there is a sort of very things are non-negotiable, you know, it's my way or the highway.

To that extent, those two extremes are the ones where you have this hardest trouble actually getting people to have fruitful conversations, because these issues that they see as sacrosanct are non-negotiable in that sense. And that's really difficult. So trying to find common ground I think at those extremes is the really important thing.

I do think there are absolutely dangers with the very progressive forms of Christianity. I think a lot of it is just simply sacrificing historical Orthodox Christianity and what that means is sacrificing Jesus at the end of the day, it's getting rid of what is for me the heart of the Christian faith, which is the radical call of Jesus to deny ourselves and follow Him.

Eric Huffman: They would push back against that, right?

Justin Brierley: Exactly. I don't again want to be sort of... I'm not gonna name any names with this, because I'm painting with a very broad brushstroke. You'd want to have the conversation with each individual to work out where they stand on an issue or whatever.

But I guess that's my concern is I think I have seen evidence that the progressive Christian thing can lead to a sort of deconstruction or kind of questioning everything, kind of almost the kind of skepticism that it's not... There's good skepticism and there's bad skepticism.

I think there's a kind of skepticism that is important, where you're asking questions and pushing and trying to work out what's what. And there's a kind of another one that's more like an acid that just eats away at everything.

For me, it's when you can no longer sort of affirm the historic core of what Christianity is that you've kind of lost something and at which point you're potentially just now becoming yet another social-cultural thing in the stream and you lose your distinctiveness.

To that extent, I think that the issue for me is that Christianity is the story that has kind of defined the West for so long. And as soon as you lose that, as soon as you kind of go off into any other story, as soon as that story stops being the central story, and I think that's the problem in progressive Christianity, sometimes other stories start to dominate the Christian story, you lose what is the driving force of the thing.

One of the people that I mentioned is the secular historian Tom Holland row who has written a book called Dominion, and it's become quite well-known now in Christian and non-Christian circles. Have had him on the show a few times. He sort of spells out this thesis of the way in which the West really was shaped by the Christian revolution, all of the ideals of human equality and value and dignity, human rights really came from that and not from anything else.

And what he says about the church now is he thinks it would be a tragedy for the church to just now kind of become another part of popular culture and lose its distinctiveness. He's very much about keeping Christianity weird.

Eric Huffman: I love it.

Justin Brierley: That he says is what is interesting and distinctive about it. And I think I agree with him. I think as soon as we start to just basically ape all of the trends of today, we do lose something very distinctive and weird and countercultural about Christianity. And it was always that that actually fight it. It was always this weird belief that God had become human and died a criminal's death on a cross. I mean, that was about as weird-

Eric Huffman: Very weird.

Justin Brierley: ...and countercultural you could get in the first century. It's become so familiar that we've almost forgotten how weird it is. But the church now needs to kind of reclaim it's weirdness almost. But do it with grace. And that's the hard thing, isn't it?

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Justin Brierley: Do it in a way where we're actually not simply just becoming another crying bell in the culture wars and so on.

Eric Huffman: I love Tom Holland's appearances on your show. He's also a great follow on Twitter, by the way, if you're on Twitter and listening right now. Tom Holland the historian, not Spider-Man.

Justin Brierley: Sometimes confused with the other one.

Eric Huffman: Not Zendaya's boyfriend but the historian Tom Holland. So you've had all sorts of celebrity voices on your show as well, and a lot of these voices have been part of the deconstruction movement. You've been tracking with deconstruction before it was cool for years. What are some of the common threads you're seeing in the deconstruction movement among those who are doing this work of deconstruction?

Justin Brierley: The thing is everyone I think goes on journeys. The theology I have is different to what it was 20 years ago in various respects. So it's not as though change doesn't happen. The deconstruction thing, though, is I think when... I don't know. I think often it can be influenced.

Certainly, there's intellectual issues. Very often it's the people that I see deconstructing a sense, didn't have a firm basis on which their faith was constructed in the first place because it was a very fundamentalist or narrow view of faith in the Bible and that kind of thing.

And I think there's a kind of almost a sense in which a lot of the people who are deconstructing are basically just having to pull apart everything. And some of them are not getting to the point where they can put it back together again because they will never kind of given that option. It's either this or nothing. And they've kind of thought, "Well, I think I'm gonna have to abandon it all now."

Whereas I think if the church was doing a better job of giving people a more solid basis for their faith and not kind of insisting on some kind of very particular way of understanding, say, I don't know, the first chapters of Genesis. And if you disagree with us on this, then you cannot be a Christian. That's one of the issues I think is the starting point.

And then you feed in other things like Christian hypocrisy or the politicalization that's happening in large parts of the USA. You feed in culture and LGBT and everything else. And I think it can build to a point where, for a certain number of people, they just feel like they have no option but to basically, you know, give up on the Christian faith that they certainly had.

Now, a certain number of those I see kind of eventually making a journey back round to a new, more reconsidered faith. But I think a lot of them are either still on that journey or they haven't got the impetus to come back and sort of try and find a new way of understanding and getting into the faith.

Eric Huffman: Right.

Justin Brierley: I don't know if that helps.

Eric Huffman: No it does.

Justin Brierley: That's kind of my big picture take.

Eric Huffman: Just like what you said earlier, everyone's faith is evolving and changing over time. It should be I mean, I hope we have different views, you know, 10 years from now than we do today. I hope those changes, though, are based on certain guidelines and beacons like scripture, and not just on my feelings or on what my heart's telling me in any given moment about some issue or what I like or don't like about Christians in my life. So I think your point is well taken.

Now, as a father, what are you and your wife doing to prepare your children for what the future of the world and the future of Christianity is going to look like? How are you raising them? And how has your work on Unbelievable? shaped your parenting style?

Justin Brierley: It's a great question. And I do not, again, by any means, say that we're doing this as well as we could or that we're some sort of model for this. But I think the key for us is that we know we cannot seal them off from the reality of the world they live in: the social media, their friends, the culture around them.

And if I've learned anything from Unbelievable?, it's that the best approach, I think, is just to go in with your eyes wide open. So we use every opportunity we get really, whether it's driving them somewhere in the car, or around the dinner table or whatever to just talk and say, "Hey, what's going on? Have you seen this? What do you think of this?" And be kind of open about these issues.

It's just trying, I think, to kind of remind in as gracious way as you can, what the basis of who we are and identity is in Christ. And that our love for them is absolutely kind of unconditional, just as God's love for us is. But that we want to have grown-up conversations with them, as you know, obviously, as it's appropriate for their age, about the issues that they're facing, and not kind of just...

I think the mistake would always be to try and put your kids in a Christian bubble. Because that bubble will get popped, whether you like it or not.

Eric Huffman: Absolutely.

Justin Brierley: And it's either now or later. So just kind of help them to go out into the world with their eyes wide open and hopefully model God's love to them and introduce them to some good theology through the conversations that you're having with them.

Eric Huffman: Right. I think that approach to parenting and your approach to your show, it sort of embodies a quiet confidence in Christ. Like we don't need to run from what's out there. We don't need to pretend like arguments against Christianity or against God Himself or other kinds of things aren't out there. They're out there. And we are all going to encounter people and people who are struggling in various ways and people that don't agree to what we ascribe to and as Christians.

So it's much better to have these conversations and to raise children and to encourage one another to not be afraid of these conversations. Because, you know, if our faith is fickle enough to fall apart with a simple disagreement or a competing argument, then how strong is our faith in the first place? Right. I think it's important that we encourage-

Justin Brierley: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. I think that's the way to go. I think the reason Unbelievable? has, in a sense, seems to chime with so many people is because we said, Look, let's put Christianity out there in the public sphere. Let's have grown-up conversations where we're not going to try to present some kind of pat apologetics or, you know, any one perspective.

My kids know that that's what I do for a living. In our church, I said my wife's a minister, we try and embody that same sense that look, we're open. We're not kind of closed off to hearing other people's points of view. We're aware that in our congregation there's quite a diversity of opinions on different things. And yet we somehow managed to live in the tension of that. We somehow managed to say, look, what unites us is bigger than what divides us.

That's not easy. It is not easy to do. But I believe miracles happen. Jesus was raised from the dead. It's possible for God to work even in difficult situations and still bring His love and His unity out in that.

Eric Huffman: Amen. There's one more quote I'll share from your book Unbelievable?. It says, "In the end, faith is not merely about belief. It's about learning to trust the God we cannot see to make sense of the world we can."

I think that is a beautiful summary of what we're all about. And in light of this understanding, you've gained about faith, would you say your show and hosting your show all these years has deepened your faith?

Justin Brierley: Oh, absolutely. It feels like I've had the privilege of kind of having, I don't know, a theology degree and-

Eric Huffman: Physics degree.

Justin Brierley: ...cultural study and everything thrown in. I don't claim to be an expert on any of these things but it's been a wonderful experience to be able to sit at the feet of some amazing thinkers on all sides of these debates and learn and listen, and try to pick up what I can and express it as I have.

As I say, at the end of this, I don't find myself knowing all the answers. There are lots of things still go in the mystery bucket or the "I don't know" bucket. Some of my theological views, there are still plenty of gray areas where I'm not prepared to say this, that or the other.

But having said all that, I would say my faith is much in a sense, stronger, deeper, arguably than it was because I think through all of that, through all of the mystery and the nuance, at the core of it, I found a really reliable story, a story that makes sense historically, makes sense philosophically, makes sense emotionally of us, make sense of the universe we live in and kind of who we find ourselves to be in it. And I just don't find another story that makes better sense of it than that.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Justin Brierley: I don't find that the atheist naturalist story makes sense. For me, just doesn't answer enough of the questions that need to be answered. I've never found another worldview that is more compelling than the Christian story. So I guess that's why I just think Jesus is the best thing out there.

Eric Huffman: Amen.

Justin Brierley: Still nothing better than Jesus as far as I'm concerned. I know that kind of makes me sound like a good old South American preacher or something like that. That's it at the end for me, you know.

Eric Huffman: Justin Brierley, I can't thank you enough for all that you've done and meant to us, personally, and I can't wait to see what's next for you and for your work.

Justin Brierley: Oh, thank you, Eric.

Eric Huffman: Thank you for being here today.

Justin Brierley: Great to be with you.

Eric Huffman: Thank you.

[01:03:05] <music>

Announcer: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois and Eric and Giovanna Huffman. Our editor is Justin Mayer and our sound engineer is Josh Fortney. The director of all of our full-length YouTube videos is Mark Calver.

For more information about Maybe God and to sign up for exclusive updates and content, head to maybegodpod.com today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening everyone!