Are you a Christian only because of family?

By Robin Schumacher

A common charge atheists make against Christianity, as well as the fact that the Christian faith is the top worldview on the planet where numbers are concerned, is that many or most of those who profess to be Christians are only doing so because they were raised in a Christian household. The thought is, if those same people were raised in a Muslim or atheist home, they'd sport that particular belief system, with the conclusion being that it isn't the validity of Christianity that's made so many Christians, rather it's just a cultural trend.

True or false?

The Worldview within the Home

First, let's understand that it's only natural for parents to school their children in belief systems they believe to be true. While skeptics promote the idea that children should be raised as "free thinkers" in a non-biased household, the fact is they many times don't practice what they preach.

Whenever I encounter an atheist who advocates such a thing, I'll always ask them, "So you tell your kids that Christianity should be considered as an equally valid worldview up against your atheism? You don't try and sway them one way or the other?" Invariably I'm met with silence in return.

Again, it's normal, and in fact right, that a parent would instruct their children to embrace what they believe to be true in any matter, including those that are of a spiritual nature. But the real at-issue question is not why parents teach their children Christianity, but why are there so many homes doing so? How did we get here in the first place?

The Real Cause Behind Christianity's Growth

Skeptics constantly try and credit various historical figures such as Constantine for the primary reason why Christianity "won out" centuries ago over competing movements such as Mithraism. But their proposed apple has a worm in it, as it refuses to recognize the impressive growth of the Christian faith prior to such events and personages who came on the stage much later.

Instead, we need to look back at the original catalyst behind Christianity's rise. By all accounts, Christianity should have died the day after Jesus' death. As scholar Ben Witherington has observed: "A historian has to explain how the high Christology of the church could have arisen after the unexpected and precipitous demise of Jesus through crucifixion. This conundrum becomes more puzzling, not less, for those who don't believe in Jesus' rising from the dead than for those who do.... On any showing, the crucifixion should have put an end to the Jesus movement once and for all in an honor and shame culture like early Judaism." [1]

But that didn't happen. Why not? Paul admits, "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). The Jews wanted their political savior, and the Greeks and Romans thought anyone crucified was certainly no one of worth. How in the world, then, did Christianity take off?

The Bible gives us a good answer. When the disciples began to proclaim the gospel message after Jesus' resurrection, they were confronted by the religious leaders (and eventually the Romans) who wanted to kill them. But a rather famous religious figure from history is recorded in Scripture as giving the following advice to those intending to stop Christianity in its tracks:
A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men [the disciples] outside for a short time. And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God." —Acts 5:34–39
While secularists may propose a plethora of reasons (some true) for why Christianity strongly grew in the first century, the simple reason is that its message was confidently proclaimed as being true, was grounded in space/time history and therefore able to be verified, and was considered divine. These are the same reasons it continues to thrive today, even in countries like China that have supposedly been shut off from the gospel but are now exploding in numbers of new Christians.

Because of Family or the Truth?

When atheists say that family upbringing is the only reason people retain the belief system of their parents, there's certainly some kernel of truth in the claim. But why think that someone can't either reject or retain what they were taught after a personal investigation of the facts?

For example, a person may be raised in a racist household throughout his entire young adult life. However, that doesn't make racism true or disable the person from reaching an understanding on his own that racism is wrong, causing him to turn away from it.

Similarly, someone could be brought up under Communism and be consistently taught that a Marxist economic and political system is correct. However, the fact that millions continue to flock to the United States showcases the truth that, although many are raised under a different set of economic teachings, they have the ability to recognize a superior model when they see it.

Interestingly enough, the Bible tells us whether it's because of family or other reasons that people become and remain believers in Christ.

There are a number of words for "faith" that exist in the Greek language. The Hellenistic and classical Greeks used the term nomizo to describe a type of belief that a person held only because of tradition and something that was passed along by parents.

That word is never used in the Greek New Testament to speak of Christian faith.

Instead, the term pistis is used in Scripture. It is a noun that comes from the verb peitho, which means "to be persuaded". If you check the best lexicons (e.g. BDAG) for the meaning of pistis, you'll find the following definitions:
  1. state of believing on the basis of reliability;
  2. trust, confidence;
  3. that which evokes trust;
  4. reliability, fidelity;
  5. pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust.
The atheistic concept of blind faith or faith held only because of a parent's instruction is foreign to the New Testament.

Instead, the faith portrayed in Scripture is held out to be one that rests on a bedrock of various philosophical and empirical arguments, as well as historic events that were faithfully recorded by eyewitnesses and passed along to others who were, and still are, able to independently investigate the evidence and make a decision for themselves.

I'm a Christian today not because I was swayed by my mother who was a Christian or by my father who was decidedly not. I'm a believer today because I was led by God (without whom no one ever comes to Christ; see John 6:44) to look into the matter of Christianity in my early college days and became convinced of its validity.

Today, some 30 years later, even though I am more aware of the arguments against Christianity than I ever have been, that pistis has only grown stronger. The true message of the gospel is why there are so many homes, like mine, where Christianity is taught, practiced, and eventually multiplies into more households.

[1] Ben Witherington III, "Jesus the Seer," in Contending with Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, Craig and Copan, Eds. (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2009), pg. 112.

Image Credit: Matthew Cua; "Parents with son praying"; Creative Commons

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Published 2-19-13