Why God Makes Sense In A World That Doesn’t

“Listen to your heart.” So goes the motto for modern culture and the tagline for every Disney movie from the last five decades. Christians have long taught the dangers of adopting this way of thinking in our own lives. “Don’t listen to your heart. Listen to God’s Word!” However, there is one sense in which we should be listening to our hearts.

In his recent book, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism (Baker, 2021), Gavin Ortlund sets out to do apologetics in an unconventional style—by appealing to the desires of the heart. His goal is to convince the reader that Christian theism is not only the most logical explanation for the universe we see around us, but also the most satisfying.

Now, before we go any further, I must give a couple qualifications up front. First, I am a Bible-believing Christian, so I do not need to be convinced that God makes sense. I accept and embrace the God of the Bible with all my heart. For me, books like these serve to strengthen my apologetics and evangelism, as well as my confidence in the faith I already hold. I am sure a review of this book from a professing atheist would sound much different. Second, Ortlund thinks and writes on an academic level that is a bit above where I live and breathe. I am not a true academic. There are folks in my congregation who will never read a book like this. If you are an academic looking to find rigorous interaction with this book’s deeper and more theoretical arguments, this is not the review for you.

Ortlund divides his book up into four chapters, each presenting one of four major ideas in his overall argument. Chapter one is all about the possibility that our world had a beginning. He asks questions such as, If there was a big bang, who made it bang? and, If everything must have a cause, what about God himself? As he does in the other three chapters, his goal is not necessarily to convince the reader beyond a shadow of a doubt, but simply to make the case that God’s existence is much more compelling than the alternative.

Chapter two presents the possibility that the world has meaning. Here, Ortlund uses three elements of our world—math, music, and love—to convince the reader that there is something above and beyond our existence, transcending the human experience. Chapter three presents the possibility that our world has a conflict, or drama, arguing that the categories of good and evil suggest a transcendent moral standard. It is not until chapter four that he goes beyond arguing for mere theism and begins to make the case for the God of the Bible. As you can see, his goal in this book is not as lofty as other apologetics works. He is trying to lay the intellectual and heart-level groundwork to make the Christian faith conceivable (or you might say sensible) in the reader’s mind.

As you read the book, there are a few things you can’t help but notice. First, Ortlund is very well-read and he interacts skillfully with many of the new atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. I believe many will appreciate his honesty when presenting opposing viewpoints. While the book is certainly academic in one sense, it is by no means dry or boring. In the preface, Ortlund writes, “Down with boring books! Down with obligatory reading! The subject matter at hand is too enthralling. If we are not captivated and delighted along the way, something is amiss.” When I read that I decided I would spend the rest of the book deciding whether or not he succeeded in living up to that statement. He did.

Second, the influence of C.S. Lewis is everywhere, which I think is a very good thing. He draws numerous lessons from the Narnia and Space Trilogy books. His argument for a transcendent moral standard that even unbelievers live by harkens back to the early chapters of Mere Christianity. Ortlund even utilizes the classic Lewis theme of the stab or pain of longing which can never be satisfied and yet is itself more satisfying than anything this world has to offer. Lewis had an unmatched ability to combine brilliant logic with heart-warming beauty in his writing and you can tell Ortlund is following in his footsteps.

As I have mentioned above, the book really shines when Ortlund is appealing to the desires of our hearts. He is essentially saying to his readers, Even if you don’t believe this is true, don’t you wish it was? Sections like ‘Why a Supernature Makes Reality More Interesting’ step away from traditional apologetics and appeal to our humanity, drawing in non-academics like myself. A quote from early in the book, that has lodged itself in my mind, should give you a taste of what I mean:

“It feels as though we have spent all our lives living in the basement, with no conception of what “outside” means—only one day to happen upon a hidden staircase leading upward into the unknown, with sunlight streaming down through the cracks in the doorway at the top. Can you imagine the thrill of such a discovery? Anything could be up there.” (p. 48)

The only critique I have is less a critique of Ortlund’s writing and more an admission of my own ignorance. I got lost and a bit disinterested at times when he dove into the weeds of the academic and theoretical arguments. I must say though, he knows his intended audience and it is not the lay-person in the pews. I share this with the hope that details like these might be helpful for those considering whether or not this book is for them.

This is certainly a book for academics, but it would also be an excellent read for pastors. I would not recommend it for the common church member, unless you are more intellectually inclined than most. As a pastor, it hit that sweet-spot of stretching me a bit beyond my comfort zone, but not being cumbersome to read. It engaged my mind as well as my heart, and so gave what Jonathan Edwards once wrote of as the crucial combination of both light and heat. I came away further convinced that the Christian story is not just more plausible than the naturalistic alternative, it is more interesting, more elegant, more dignifying, and more hopeful. Beauty makes a whole lot of sense.

John Davis is the pastor of Columbia Christian Church in Columbia, KY. He is the author of God-Centered Christianity: The Bible’s Antidote for Self-Centered Religion and Seeing the Unseen God.

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