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Interview: Sharon Dirckx, Christian apologist

17 February 2023

‘The Christian faith helps us to make sense of horrendous evil, because it teaches that there is something wrong with the world’

Apologetics are not for the specialist. We’re all called to give an answer for the hope we have. We’re all giving answers all the time, as we can, responding to people’s questions. There are many gifted apologists doing fantastic work for the Kingdom. Time and eternity will reveal the quality of that work, and the extent to which it led others to Christ.

I completed an undergrad degree in biochemistry, and took an internship in the pharmaceutical industry, working in Magnetic Resonance Imaging [MRI]. I became fascinated with this technique, which enables you to look inside the body without slicing into it, and went on to a Ph.D. at Cambridge.

The brain sits in the skull with all of its neurones, synapses, transmitters, and chemical and electrical activity. The mind or soul is everything associated with one’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories: in other words, our sense of self. Brain and mind are interwoven and connected very closely, but that doesn’t mean they’re synonymous or identical.

The relationship between mind and soul varies, depending on the theologian or philosopher. Some would say that they are simply different ways of referring to the self; others would say that “soul” is the umbrella word under which everything else sits, and that mind is a property of the soul.

Neuro-imaging and scripture remind us that we’re integrated physical and spiritual beings. For every religious experience, there are corresponding networks in the brain. But that doesn’t mean the brain activity is the experience: these are two very different things. Neither does it mean that the genuineness of the experience, or the existence of God, is called into question — in the same way that discovering brain networks associated with romantic love doesn’t undermine the experience of being in love, or the existence of our beloved. The brain mediates consciousness and our engagement in spiritual practices because we’re holistic beings, not robotic machines or immortal floating souls.

I served for 12 years as a lecturer and tutor on the team at OCCA, the Oxford Christian Centre for Apologetics: an independent charity working with local churches to equip people to respond to difficult questions and objections to Christianity in workplaces and schools, the arts, and the media. In 2022, I moved on to do more speaking, writing, and research, but I remain very much connected in friendship and ministry with the team as an adjunct lecturer.

Apologetics are about all of these things: rhetoric, more luminous action, connecting with an increasingly illiterate generation, and telling the story to generations who don’t know it or don’t perceive any need for it. It depends on the audience and the generation we’re speaking to. We need argument, stories, illustrations. We need to illuminate and translate the gospel in every way possible.

In my book Why? Looking at God, evil and personal suffering, I wove stories of people who’ve journeyed with God through suffering, with responses to difficult questions. I wanted to develop this, looking specifically at the question of natural disasters, which seem to happen because of forces beyond our control rather than because of human actions. Broken Planet gives first-hand accounts of events like earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes, and wildfires. These stories are woven in with questions like “If God is real, why are there natural disasters, and why do so many people suffer and die in natural disasters?” These are questions that are all too poignant in light of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

Every time a tragedy strikes, we are reminded that intellectual answers alone are not enough. People’s lives are torn apart, and any response given needs to be relevant and liveable in daily life. For Broken Planet, I heard from those who share stories of how Christ has brought them through immense tragedy. People’s stories most inspire me: how they have tackled adversity and somehow still walk with Christ through it all — stories like those of James and Elizabeth Elliott, and Corrie Ten Boom. And, closer to home, I have a friend who endures debilitating illness with incredible grace and courage.

The bottom line is that we live in a world in which good and evil are at play. I keep coming back to the book of Job. His suffering is unfathomable from his own vantage point, and yet, as the reader, we glimpse a bigger perspective of the ongoing cosmic battle between God and Satan.

Every generation has its terrible evils, and can experience a sense of being overwhelmed by tragedy. Wars and the Holocaust bring this clearly into focus. These are a reminder that evil is very real — but how do we make sense of our reaction to atrocities that people commit, if God does not exist, and we live in a non-moral universe of matter and the forces of nature? That doesn’t seem like enough. It doesn’t deal with the rawness and anger we feel in the face of evil.

The Christian faith helps us to make sense of horrendous evil, because it teaches that there is something wrong with the world. Objective good and evil exist. It also speaks of a God — Jesus — who has suffered like us and for us on the cross, meaning he’s not distant or indifferent to our suffering. God in Christ comes alongside us: a man of sorrows who is familiar with suffering, and yet one who’s also overcome evil so that suffering doesn’t have the last word.

There are different views on why there is so much suffering and evil in the world. One is that a human fall yielded the broken planet we have today. Another is that there was an angelic fall long before people arrived that wrought destruction in the natural world.

But most natural disasters truly are disasters because of both natural factors and human factors. Whatever the source and root cause, people undoubtedly make them worse, and ratchet up the numbers who suffer and die. The numbers of deaths in Syria and Turkey are astonishingly high, probably because people were living in poor-quality buildings that were unable to withstand quakes. Lives could have been saved with better engineering and construction.

The human role played in climate change is also relevant to other kinds of “natural” disaster. Our excessive use of fossil fuels has contributed to global warming, leading to increased severity and frequency of hurricanes, flooding, and landslides.

I became a Christian as an adult. I was at university, and experienced the peace of God, attending a carol service with my Christian friends. I’ve been an active member of my local church for the past 25 years.

I grew up in a religiously neutral, loving family in the north-east. I’m married to Conrad, a product manager in medical imagining, whose surname is Dutch — and rhymes with “lyrics”. We have two children, and live in Oxford.

Injustice makes me angry, especially against children.

Ultimately, it’s Jesus who makes me happy. But also chocolate and coffee, and being outdoors.

I love being outside and away from man-made noise; so my favourite sounds are the breeze, and birds singing, and of the natural world.

Jesus gives me hope for the future, especially as we look in disbelief at the recent earthquake. Jesus promises to be with us, even if our worst nightmares come true. Even though this world is so broken, he has overcome the sources of evil on the cross. We live with the presence of all those things, but one day everything will be made new — the new heaven and the new earth — an existence every bit physical as it is spiritual.

I pray most for more of God’s Kingdom to come to earth, at home, at church, in our city, and across the UK. We have a part to play in that: seeing God’s work done on earth, helping people in distress, and developing technologies that prevent or alleviate suffering, such as vaccines and medical treatment.

Economics and politics also play a part, for example, in the fight for human rights, an inherently Judaeo-Christian concept. We have things to do now that point to that future.

The ultimate part we can play is in introducing others to Jesus himself. Where all human attempts reach a limit, he’s the one that can truly meet people’s deepest emotional and spiritual needs.

I’d choose to spend time with Smith Wigglesworth, who was the father of the last revival in the UK, beginning in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. He was bold in prayer and hungry for the Spirit of God.

Sharon Dirckx was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The books mentioned are Broken Planet (SPCK, £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.89); Why? (IVP, £10.99 (£9.89); and Am I Just my Brain? (Good Book Company at £8.99 (£8.09)).

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