Reviewed by Matt Crawford
Does Christianity Really Work? is part of a 10-volume series of books being published by Christian Focus entitled The Big Ten: Critical Questions Answered. The Big Ten is an intentionally easy-to-read “Christian apologetics series which aims to address ten commonly asked questions about God, the Bible, and Christianity.” Interestingly, one could argue that six out of ten of the big questions answered in this series deal with aspects of the problem of evil: 1) Why is there evil in the world? 2) Why do I personally experience evil and suffering? 3) Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so violent and hateful? 4) How could a loving God send anyone to hell? 5) If Christianity is so good, why are Christians so bad? 6) Does Christianity really work? Although the last question – the one dealt with by the volume currently under review – does not as obviously relate to the problem of evil, the way that William Edgar fleshes out the question revolves primarily around how Christianity makes a difference in a world of suffering. Does Christianity really work in dealing with war? Social justice? Healthcare needs? Addiction? These areas of focus make Does Christianity Really Work? fit in well with the emphasis of much of the rest of “The Big Ten” series.
The book hits its goal of being an easy read – it is conversational, just over 200 pages, and features many anecdotes to illustrate concepts and keep the reader interested. It is quite portable, even fitting in this reviewer’s pocket! It has multiple potential uses in personal devotion and ministry, as will be discussed further below.
Overview and Evaluation
Edgar begins by outlining the main question that he is attempting to address: does the Christian faith actually make a difference? Does it bring about the kind of changes it claims to be able to make? He aims to counter the narrative often advanced by New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that Christianity (along with other religions) is poisonous and harmful. Edgar’s credibility in this task is increased by his frank admission of instances in which the church has failed. He is honest about these moments in Christian history, although he does frequently point out that the prevailing narrative (with regard to the medieval Crusades, for instance) unfairly portrays the actions of Christians. Edgar reminds the reader that evil will not be completely abolished until the final judgment. But his thesis is “that despite the numerous setbacks and weaknesses of the church, nevertheless we can point to substantial progress” (25).
Edgar’s first two chapters deal with the issue of making peace. The first chapter asks: why there is so much war in the Bible, if Christians are called to make peace? And how does Christianity respond to ongoing wars in the world today? Edgar answers by explaining that true peace sometimes requires a fight for justice, and he then makes a strong biblical case for just war. As a specific example, he admits that some Christians were complicit in the rise of Nazism, but that overall, a Christian understanding of just war and fighting to rescue the innocent motivated believers to work for the end of the Nazi regime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is discussed at length in this section. This chapter may push a little far in its connection of Allied war efforts with Christian principles, but the evidence from Bonhoeffer’s life for the power of Christian conviction is convincing.
The second chapter looks at the other side of the coin of making peace: how has Christianity brought about reconciliation between opposing parties? Edgar includes the examples of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that helped to heal the wounds of apartheid, as well as the reconciliation in Nicaragua in the 1980s between the Sandinistas and the Amerindians – largely led by pastors and consistently featuring Scripture readings and prayer. Edgar ends this chapter with a section on interpersonal reconciliation, including in the context of marriage. Based on the forgiveness that Jesus has given to believers, Christianity leads to interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation.
Chapters 3 and 4 deal with Christian contributions in the areas of social reform and healthcare. Edgar speaks at length of the contribution of William Wilberforce and other abolitionists motivated by their Christian faith to the ending of the slave trade in England and her colonies. He also unpacks the biblical concepts behind the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition, he explains how modern medicine and many advancements in healthcare grew out of a Christian understanding of the curse of sin, as well as the biblical call to compassion for the suffering. Chapter 4 discusses the lives of Thomas Sydenham, Florence Nightingale, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Bono. This reviewer was not familiar with Sydenham before reading this book, and was encouraged by this chapter to more deeply research his faith and the many important discoveries he made in the seventeenth century. One of the strengths of Edgar’s book is the introduction to the reader of somewhat lesser-known individuals in Christian history, whose lives and works can greatly reward further study and reflection.
Chapter 5 deals with the question of unanswered prayer. Again, this topic links to the problem of evil: if God has all power and loves His children, why does He not answer every prayer with a miraculous intervention? In this chapter, Edgar discusses God’s sovereignty, His greater plan, His working of good out of evil, and His entrance into our suffering through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 6 delves into the issue of eternal security and those who seem to fall away from the faith. This chapter speaks primarily to believers in Christ, as it does not seem that many skeptics or unbelievers would be wrestling with this question. Edgar discusses the case of Chuck Templeton, Billy Graham’s friend and fellow evangelist who later abandoned the Christian faith. Edgar’s response flows along traditional theological lines – explaining from Scripture that, although there are many who appear to be saved but are not, those who are truly saved will never be snatched out of Christ’s hand. Another strength of Edgar’s book is the many Scripture references it provides, that both back up his claims and provide a launching point for further study.
Chapters 7 and 8 deal respectively with “Persistent Sins: Temperamental Inclination” and “Besetting Sins: Addiction.” In both, Edgar seeks to show that Christianity really works through its enabling of people to defeat anger, fear, lust for power, drug addiction, and pornography. He argues that Christianity is practical because the gospel actually provides victory over these and other struggles. A further strength of Edgar’s book is its gospel centrality. In this section in particular, he continues to walk the reader through the completed work of Christ and explains how this work enables victory over addictions and sinful temperaments. In places, these sections feel like biblical counseling sessions, which, although somewhat unusual in a book of this nature, display Edgar’s pastoral heart and his desire to draw skeptics and strugglers toward faith in Christ.
Chapter 9 concludes the book with a general discussion of human suffering and the gospel’s answer of hope in a dark world. This chapter is particularly beautiful in its inclusion of poetry that poignantly juxtaposes human suffering with firm hope in Christ – much like the Psalms do. In this powerful section, Edgar brilliantly displays his rare combination of expertise in the areas of apologetics and aesthetics. It is a fitting conclusion to a brief but eminently helpful work.
This reviewer currently serves as a senior pastor and adjunct professor but previously also taught Christian high school students. Upon reflection, it is clear that Edgar’s book could be useful in all of these contexts. A pastor would find it useful in preparing for an apologetic sermon series, or in equipping saints who are struggling with their own faith or answering questions from skeptics. Also, church small groups could discuss one chapter of the book each time they meet. Because of the many references to Christians in history, the book is also highly valuable as a source for sermon illustrations. Finally, although probably too light for a Master’s level seminary course, Does Christianity Really Work? would be of great benefit to a Bachelor’s level or advanced Christian high school course on Apologetics.
Matt Crawford, Ph.D., serves as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sebring, Florida, and as an Adjunct Professor of Worldview and Apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
Does Christianity Really Work?