Dan DeWitt. Jesus or Nothing. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 144 pp. $10.99.
Who am I? How did I get here? Why am I here? What is here? How did here get here? Questions. We all have questions. The sort of questions we all should ask about life, but typically don’t or don’t want to. The sort of questions to which the answers change everything. Dan DeWitt wants to help us with our questions by simplifying the answer for us—it is Jesus or Nothing.
Theism or Nihilism
In Jesus or Nothing, DeWitt, dean of Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, contrasts theism and atheism’s philosophical daughter nihilism—“the Nothing.” Nihilism is a worldview that affirms the universe as an end in itself and therefore has no basis for intrinsic meaning or value. Many philosophers regard at least a little nihilism as a necessary consequence of atheism, but interestingly many atheists are not nihilists. This is particularly true of the increasingly popular “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, who reject God’s existence but want to affirm relatively traditional views of rationality and morality. DeWitt wants his readers, whether believers or unbelievers, to think critically about the consequences of theism and the alternative, nihilism.
Drawing on the philosophy of Pascal in Pensées and the theology of Paul in Colossians, DeWitt works through several worldview questions, answering each by asking “What if. . . ?” What if the gospel were true? What if the Nothing were true? He wants to show us that Christianity is both plausible and desirable, and perhaps, also true. He starts by answering the basic questions of existence. Who am I? How did I get here? Why am I here? If the Nothing were true, then we are . . . well, it’s difficult to say who we are, how we got here, and why we are here. But DeWitt argues that if the gospel were true, then we are persons created in God’s image for God’s own glory (49). He then answers the basic questions of epistemology. If the Nothing is true, then truth is illusory and our thoughts are an accident. But if the gospel is true, then truth is real and we are able to discover and discern it (63). DeWitt answers the basic questions of morality and shows not only that the gospel alone can account for morality, but also that the gospel alone is the answer to our immorality (75). After all of the argument has been made, DeWitt revisits Pascal’s wager and asks the reader to seriously think about the reasonableness of the gospel and its life-changing consequences (123).
Christian’s Theory of Everything?
In Jesus or Nothing DeWitt claims that “the gospel is the Christian’s theory of everything” (36). I agree the gospel is utterly essential to a Christian worldview, but is it everything? Maybe. It depends on how “the gospel” is defined. The gospel is typically defined as the message of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, righteous life, substitutionary death, and resurrection to save sinners. But it may also be reasonable to define the gospel to describe God’s story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. DeWitt alternates between the two definitions of the gospel throughout Jesus or Nothing. The reader, therefore, is required to understand which definition DeWitt is using. For instance, he writes: “The gospel reveals why there is something rather than nothing, where the universe came from, why it is orderly, why humanity is personal, and why we long for transcendence” (38). If the gospel is the message of Christ’s work to save sinners, then these things are not revealed in the gospel but, according to Romans 1:19–20, are revealed in creation—unless creation is part of “the gospel.” Later, DeWitt writes, “The gospel is God’s cure for our spiritual death” (75). I think his alternating between definitions of the gospel may be confusing to the questioning reader.
The gospel is not everything. It is “grace for our guilt,” as DeWitt clearly and beautifully declares, but I don’t think it could be called the Christian’s theory of everything—a Christian worldview. A Christian worldview will include redemption (i.e., “the gospel”), but will also include philosophical and theological categories that are not “the gospel,” categories like rationality or creation. Perhaps it would have been clearer had DeWitt continued to say what he said at the beginning: “Christ is the basis for understanding everything” (39)—in other words, Christ is the Christian’s theory of everything, for “all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).
Jesus OR Nothing?
Jesus or Nothing’s unique advantage against other apologetic works is its simplicity. DeWitt suggests all worldviews can essentially be reduced to Jesus or Nothing. Yet Jesus or Nothing may be too simple. Of theism, DeWitt writes, “Theism best explains reality: Jesus best explains theism” (46). I agree. He shows that deism, a theistic worldview that affirms a god who is there but who is silent, is a practical sort of atheism. A silent god is not really different from no god at all, and therefore a little nihilism is a necessary consequence of deism. Then, DeWitt stops. What about other theistic worldviews? Why Christianity and not pantheism? Why Christianity and not Islam? I think that a brief argument for the trinitarian theism of Christianity would have only strengthened DeWitt’s other strong arguments for Christianity.
DeWitt has written a warm and easily understandable work to “encourage believers in the love for the gospel, challenge skeptics in their rejection of it, and assist Christian parents and leaders as they contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3)” (17). Jesus or Nothing does that. It will start a needed conversation, a conversation that will, Lord willing, replace doubt with faith—faith in Jesus and not Nothing.