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Chapter 01

The Skeptical Student

Daniel Barta

Friday, January 5, 2024



Timothy Keller calls our attention first to a skeptic’s encounter with Jesus found in John 1:43-51.  It is in this encounter that John, through the words and actions of Jesus, “addresses perhaps the most fundamental of all the big questions: Where should we look for answers to the big questions of life?” (p. 1).  Here Jesus helps “those who are skeptical about Christianity, and also [those] who face skepticism from those who do not believe” (p.1).

As he tells the story, Keller points out three noteworthy aspects of Nathanael’s skepticism. 

First, Nathanael “is at least an intellectual snob, and maybe even a bigot” (p. 4).  He looked down on people different from him, people from Nazareth like Jesus. This is common to humans, “We want others to think of us as capable and intelligent and we often seek to establish this identity not through respectful, diligent argument but through ridicule and disdain” (p. 4-5). 

To those who like Nathanael “roll their eyes at their idea of Christianity and its claims about who Christ is,” Keller makes two suggestions:

  1. Don’t be dismissive; dismissiveness is deadly (p. 5).  Dismissiveness “absolutely kills all creativity and problem solving” along with “any hope for relationship” (p. 5).  

  2. Don’t sever your core values from their source (p. 6).   Christianity “originated” many of the ideas of “peaceful civilization.”  These include for example:

    • “You should love your enemies, not kill them.”  

    • “You should take care of the poor.”

You might think that you can take some aspects of Christianity and reject others, but that is “shortsighted.” Christianity is rooted in the truth as revealed in a person.  The knowledge of this person upholds certain values and ways of living.

Second, “underneath [Nathanael’s] loud, public assertions of skepticism there was a lot of covert spiritual searching” (p. 11).  Even skeptics have the “same need we all have… they have to look for answers” (p. 11).   Many skeptics like Nathanael are “unsatisfied with the answers they have gotten” from school, books, podcasts, music, television, counselors, and family (p. 12).  It is this dissatisfaction with the answers to big questions offered by the world that sets many skeptics to “quietly begin to investigate Jesus” (p. 12).  This should encourage Christians to speak up and point skeptics to Jesus, while at the same time encouraging skeptics to investigate.

Third, Jesus invites Nathanael the skeptic to investigate Him while promising him to prove greater than Nathanael could imagine.  Jesus did not demand that Nathanael know everything about him before Nathanael came.  Instead, Jesus gently rebuked Nathanael for changing his position swiftly (p. 17).  Jesus urged Nathanael to slow down and walk with Him.  If he would walk with Jesus, he would see much greater works than Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of him. “Though most spiritual seekers start their search afraid of disappointment, Jesus says that… he will always exceed our expectation; he will be more than we can ask or imagine.”  So, he invites you and the skeptics to “shed your prejudices and come look along with Nathanael” at Jesus (p. 19). 

Something Helpful

The essence of what makes Christianity different from every other religion and form of thought is this: Every other religion says if you want to find God, if you want to improve yourself, if you want to have higher consciousness, if you want to connect with the divine, [if you want to find the answers to life’s biggest questions] – you have to do something.  You have to gather your strength… keep the rules… free your mind… fill your mind, and… be above average… Christianity says the exact opposite.  Christianity says Jesus is the answer to [all the big questions].  (Keller, p. 9)

I find this truth helpful, for two reasons.  First, I am nothing special.  I am not above average.  I am not a wise philosopher or a particularly gifted or superior student.  I have certainly failed at keeping the rules.  But God has provided answers to the biggest questions arising in my heart and mind by revealing the truth about Himself in Jesus.  The biggest questions are answered in Jesus for all who, by faith, receive what He says He is as fact.  This means even less than average guys like me can come into the light and see the answers to our biggest questions.

Second, I have good news for all people.  The gospel comes with appealing force not just to the strong but for everyone.  While “so many systems of thought appeal to strong, successful people, because they play directly into their belief that if you are strong and hardworking enough you will prevail,” Christianity is “especially for people who admit that where it really counts, they’re weak.” It comes with great light to those “who have a particular kind of strength to admit that their flaws are not superficial, their heart is deeply disordered, and that they are incapable of rectifying themselves” (Keller, p. 9).

Something to Think About

What do I or the groups/communities to which I belong tend to dismiss out of contempt/pride?

At first Nathanael dismissed Jesus and the claims about him simply because he came from Nazareth.  Keller correctly identifies that pride and contempt in the heart of Nathanael caused him to dismiss Jesus without even examining him.  This leads me to question, “What claims or ideas or behaviors do I quickly dismiss as illegitimate without honest examination simply because I think I am better than or hostile to the people making the claim or presenting the idea?”   In addition, I question, “What groups or persons do the groups I belong to tend to dismiss and delegitimize?”

Something to Do

Several instructions come out of this story about Jesus and the skeptic Nathanael. 

First, acknowledge your questions and then turn to Jesus for answers.  So often in the church we convey the idea that no one should have questions.  The church has too often identified those who wrestle with the big questions as those lacking faith.  But, in the Scriptures faith is demonstrated in one’s turning to Jesus seeking answers to the big questions trusting that in Him the answers will be found.  Faith is not measured by our ability to articulate answers to all of life’s big questions.  Indeed, our faith might show itself in humble admittance that we are struggling in uncertainty but that we trust that in Jesus the answers will be found.

Second, be encouraged in your evangelism.  Your neighbors, co-workers, family members, and teammates may appear to be settled, confident, and “fine,” but you can be assured that they too wrestle in the quietness of night with life’s biggest questions.  You have the answers if you have Christ.  You have what they need.  And, even if at first they dismiss with ridicule your message, there is in them a curious and investigative impulse that longs to find what has eluded them, a satisfactory answer to their heart’s biggest inquiries.

Questions to Ask Your Cell Group

  • Who are the skeptics close enough to you that you have conversations with them on a regular basis?  What reasons have they given for their skepticism toward Christianity?  

  • What one big life question do you wish you had a clear answer for?  How, if at all, might what you know about Jesus begin to answer this question?

  • What are 3 groups/communities you belong to?  What other groups/communities do your groups/communities tend to dismiss?

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