Is Christian theism really believable? Does God make sense amidst our world that often doesn't? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with author Gavin Ortlund about his latest book. Dr. Ortlund argues that certain signs in nature-such as math, beauty, music, and stories-point to a meaningful, theistic world. We discuss his positive case for theism and respond to some of the most common naturalistic objections.

Gavin Ortlund is a scholar, pastor, and writer with a growing profile among the next generation of Christian thinkers. He serves as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California, and is the author of multiple books. He blogs at and has a growing YouTube channel called "Truth Unites."

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics.

Scott Rae: I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: Today we're here at the guest, Gavin Ortlund, who's a scholar, pastor, and a writer who I would say is a young up and coming or not even up and coming really established apologist, who's just written a fantastic book that's called Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn't. He got his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. Gavin thank you so much for coming on the show.

Gavin Ortlund: Hey, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Sean McDowell: Well, let's just jump right in. I'm really curious. What motivated you to write this book and given that there's a lot of apologetics books that are out there and cultural books, what do you think makes this book unique?

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah. There were really two things on my heart that led me to write the book. One is just having so many friends, unfortunately, who have either left the faith altogether, or they're really struggling and they're working through things and maybe they've even come through that, but they really struggled for a season with questions of faith and then I've been through two seasons myself where I wouldn't even call it doubt, but more just times of angst, just wrestling through questions. And I've found that apologetics is such a help in those seasons. So really what I want to do with my YouTube channel, with this book, with other things I'm doing is just try to help people. I think there's a lot of people who are out there asking deep questions, maybe they're disillusioned, maybe there's a lot of talk about deconstruction right now, and that means so many different things for different people.

Gavin Ortlund: But I just think people right now can benefit from having a winsome case for, hey, let's start at the basics. Here are some reasons to think that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead and then let's build outward from there. So in terms of my approach being unique, there are really three things. One is that I appeal to beauty as well as to truth. That's not totally unique of course, but it's a little bit of a distinctive. The second is that I cast each of my arguments in a narrative frame. So I'm basically using classical arguments to try to tell a story. And the question is, hey, what kind of story makes the most sense out of our world to both our head and to our heart. And then lastly, it's a book that uses abductive arguments, it's big word there, but that's simply means it makes inferences to the best explanation. So it's not making certain deductive arguments or even inductive arguments. It's saying, hey, what's the most likely scenario. And so it's a little bit of a different flavor maybe to it. I'm not saying that's the only way it should be done, but it's just how I felt. It might be helpful to people right now to cast this particular book.

Scott Rae: So Gavin, tell us a little bit more about this abductive approach because that's a bit different than the way most apologetics books are done today. What do you hope to accomplish with that? Maybe some other books in the field are not able to do?

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah, again, it's not something that I feel is the only way to do it. I think there's a space for all different kinds of arguments for different people and in different contexts. But I find that many times, if you can get the person to a point where they're saying, I think Christianity makes more sense than this particular alternative that they're considering. A lot of times, that's a huge victory in and of itself. Sometimes with some people that's actually more helpful for them than if you try to push the pedal all the way down and get them to absolute certainty. So I spend lot of time in the book talking about Blaise Pascal and his insights about the psychology of faith. And in the whole book, it's a very modest book. I get to the very end and I say, okay, all of this just yields a probable conclusion.

Gavin Ortlund: Not because I don't think people can argue more ambitiously. It's just that's what I've tried to do here. And then I say, so that leaves us with the Pascalian wager of what's the best decision to make in light of what I do know. And I do think the holy spirit can use our arguments and our efforts, even if they don't get someone to a hundred percent certainty, even if someone is just saying, wow, that makes a lot of sense. I'm not sure yet, but it's compelling. That can be really useful.

Sean McDowell: You discussed some of the common arguments for God, like the cosmological argument from a [inaudible 00:04:44] the universe to beginner, the fine tuning argument, how there's certain finely tuned parameters within certain constant stay in physics that point towards a fine tuner. But you also talk about math and this grab my intention partly because my wife is a high school math teacher, but second, you just don't hear this argued as often in the world of apologetics and beyond. So what are the features of math itself that you think best points to a transcendent source and away from a naturalistic universe?

Gavin Ortlund: Okay. Yeah. This was the most fun part of the book for me.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Gavin Ortlund: To write and to research. I never thought, first of all, I didn't like math when I was growing up. So I didn't expect to ever get into the philosophy of math. But basically what I'm trying to do here in the book is within chapter two, which is in the context of the meaning of the world. So I take these classical arguments and I cast them as parts of a story. So the argument from design is about the meaning of the story. The argument from morality is about the drama of the story. The argument from Christ is about the hope or happy ending of the story. So in the context of the meaning of the story, I'm talking about specific features of our world, like math, music, and love that seem to suggest transcendence in some way or another, each in their own distinctive way.

Gavin Ortlund: Now, it's so fun to hear from math teachers and music teachers from this, so many people and many people have said this and I've heard this from the philosophers. I mean, this is what gave me confidence because I did not expect to find these arguments compelling. I didn't expect them to work. I was skeptical going into it, but I kept finding all the top full philosophers of math and philosophers of music, talking about how fundamentally mysterious these things are. So with math, the three features I draw attention to are first maths permanence, second maths beauty and third maths applicability. That is to say the fact that math applies to the physical universe so precisely such that, it's so useful and consistent. And when you look into this, what you find is that's a really curious set of characteristics to discover on a naturalistic worldview.

Gavin Ortlund: The way I like to make the appeal to people is imagine the physical universe collapsed into non-existence, would two plus two still equal four. Most people would have the intuition to say yes, of course, what else could two plus two equal? And what that draws attention to is math seems to be an alternate realm that's more permanent and necessary compared to the physical realm, which is contingent and constantly in flux. I don't say that proves God, but I do say it fits better in theism and it's just extremely curious in a naturalistic worldview.

Scott Rae: So how do the naturalists account for what you've just described with the phenomenon of math?

Gavin Ortlund: When it comes to the third argument, the applicability of math, which is the most common out there in the apologetics world. In 1960, Eugene Wigner wrote a famous article that so many apologists have used and Einstein and others said the same thing that it's just amazing that math works so well. Like why should ideas and physical reality fit together so well. And if you get into, this is what gave me confidence. If you get into the literature on this, what you see is that most of the time it boils down to being a coincidence. Now, sometimes people will appeal to the multiverse and just say, well, happens to do so in this universe, but not others. But oftentimes, and I quote one example at the end of the chapter, the naturalistic perspective, it boils down to, we don't really know, why it works so well.

Scott Rae: A happy accident.

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah, exactly, which is very interesting.

Sean McDowell: When you think about Dempsey's intelligent design filter, before he interprets design, he looks at chance and necessity and accident chance can't account for this precision, necessity doesn't seem to answer with math because it didn't have to be that way. Seemingly at least that doesn't explain the source. Can it point towards design? That's what you argue is the best explanation. I love it. Speaking of love, you also argue not only math, but that love points to our world being meaningful, that love is a transcendent sign pointing towards meaning to the universe. Explain?

Gavin Ortlund: Okay. Here is where I draw from the great philosophical resource, the movie Frozen 2, which I have seen too many times, I'm embarrassed how much I've seen it, but I have a six year old daughter, so that partly explains that.

Sean McDowell: Sure you do.

Gavin Ortlund: But I actually do love the music. And I actually think there are some interesting themes in some of the songs. And one of them is where the character Olaf is dying and he says to his friend, because they've already been exploring themes of permanence versus transients and Olaf says, I just discovered one thing that's permanent, love. And I remember watching that scene and thinking, because I was writing this book and I was thinking, that is a really interesting thing to explore within this same framework of which worldview makes better sense. It existentially an intellectual. And the way this argument works is basically we point to the common associations and experiences that most of us have with love that most of us aren't willing to let go of, for example, that love is good. Also, that love is meaningful. What you then ask is, okay, let's probe that, is there any place for that belief within a naturalistic worldview and what you see as you go through it is basically your explanation for love in a naturalistic worldview boils down to evolutionary psychology.

Gavin Ortlund: So this is where we're explaining features of our existence based upon our evolutionary history and everything boils down to what helped animals survive. And so love is seen along with other things about us as a spinoff of the evolutionary process. When you really think that through it really doesn't leave room for what most of us assume to be the case with respect to love and also other aspects of our existence like rationality. So the appeal that I'm making, again, this is an abductive argument. So I'm saying based upon what the person I'm speaking to probably already believes about love. What's the best explanation for that and in Christian theism, you can go to the trinity and say, love is actually at the core of reality, the motive for the creation of the universe, is the overflow of love. To me, that's a far more enchanting, a vision and it's also just more plausible one.

Scott Rae: Gavin, I want to go back to the discussion of math and you also made reference to music and I want to give our listeners a heads up that we have followup to this one that's going to be all about your argument from music, but I'd like to give our listeners just a taste of your abductive argument from music. We're not giving our listeners the whole story here, but just to give them a teaser for what that argument is, I found that particularly fascinating?

Sean McDowell: Just for the record, you can sing a song or make the argument. I'm just kidding.

Gavin Ortlund: I think the listeners will much prefer me to make the argument.

Scott Rae: I wouldn't want his singing the argument to actually make the argument less plausible.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, exactly.

Gavin Ortlund: It would probably increase the number of atheists in the world by several, at least. So the argument for music is just to really simplify it down is it starts from the observation that human beings experience transcendence in the context of listening to music. And then it's asking what's the best explanation for that. I comb through a lot of philosophers of music and I draw attention to certain features of music, such as music's ability to communicate that are really curious on the naturalistic worldview. Nobody really knows like music can communicate meaning and people are constantly wondering how does it do that? It doesn't communicate in a representational manner like human language and words does. And yet music has the tremendous power of communication. And so then I work through from a Christian perspective, Peter Kreeft called music, the original language. And I talk about the Silmarillion where Tolkien describes the creation of the world in terms of music and in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan sings the world into being, I make the argument that a theistic worldview is better able to explain the seeming transcendence, that music is able to communicate.

Sean McDowell: I want to make sure our listeners realize what you're doing. You're looking at math, you're pointing to music. You're pointing to love. These features of the world, that we all act as if and believe are real, but say that they're more at home, better explained within a theistic and distinctly Christian worldview. I think that's the methodology that you're taking. You also apply that to the reality of evil, which hands down I would say is the most common and difficult objection for people to wrestle with. Now often what some theists will say is you can't have evil without good. You can't have good without God. So evil itself is an argument for an objective moral standard and hence of God, that's one way to approach this. You approach this a little bit differently, arguing about the existence of good and evil and the conflict pointing towards God. I found this was fascinating. Unpack it for us?

Gavin Ortlund: Okay. Yes. This is in chapter three, this is where I get into movies a lot, which I know we'll talk about, but maybe I could start to make it really concrete and vivid for listeners is, when I talk about movies, I mention when movies don't have a happy ending and I observe the feeling that has upon us and the sense of a lack of satisfaction that brings. Then I, why is it that we have this longing built into us for happy endings? So again, just like in the last chapter, these are abductive arguments that draw their power from commitments, someone may already have and be not willing to let go of. And then I actually like to give people a back door. I even like to show them the back door and say, hey, if you want to avoid this argument, here's how you can do so, all you have to do is, do this. With some people, that way of arguing can be more compelling, but I go through this chapter and I just draw attention to what is our sense of good and evil.

Gavin Ortlund: And I start off the whole thing with this one episode from a favorite C. S. Lewis, Book of Mine called That Hideous Strength, where this one character is, he's basically like psychologically tortured. He's put in this room that has all these odd shapes and they're trying to mess with his mind and in the context of that, he says he discovers what he calls the normal and it sustains him and saves him. And I just try to help the reader feel all of us, have this intuitive sense that some things are normal and other things are gross and wrong. Certain scenes you might see in a horror movie, everyone can understand that feeling of recoiling at something that just feels so deeply wrong.

Gavin Ortlund: And basically where I ended is to say on a naturalistic worldview, it really is actually similar Sean, I think to how you summarize this really, but you really don't have a solid foundation for that feeling having any objective reference that validates it. But for atheist, at least you get to see the problem of evil as a real problem. At least you get to say, yes, it really is evil. Now we may not fully know why it's there yet, but at least we can really say, yes, this is evil. It is wrong. It is a deviation from how things are supposed to be.

Scott Rae: Gavin, there are a couple of areas that I found striking in their omission because some of the abductive arguments that I think have been used maybe a little bit more often have been an argument from rationality, for example, that rationality fits much better in a theistic worldview than a naturalistic one or even morality and moral properties seems to fit a lot better within a theistic framework than a naturalistic one. I wouldn't say those are necessarily knock down arguments, but they seem to fit that abductive framework that you've been establishing in the book pretty well. Was there a reason that you decided not to address those in a lot of detail?

Gavin Ortlund: Well, I do. Towards the end of the chapter on meaning I do coordinate the arguments from math, music, and love in relation to this larger intuition that would also involve consciousness, rationality and free will. So it's just about three pages. So I'm not really making the argument. I'm just highlighting that these are other examples of the larger point, but I just felt like I needed to be a little bit selective there just to keep things moving, because there's so many things like that we could draw attention to. So yeah, I do myself. I am very sympathetic to those aspects of human experience as well, consciousness, rationality, and free will, also being used in the same way.

Sean McDowell: Your focus on movies was one of my favorite chapters because I teach a class at least a part of a class on worldview analysis in which we focus on movies. And one of the things, especially in our world today where we hear it's a post truth culture and there's no objective truth outside of us. When we look at movies and stories, there're certain elements that have to be present for there to be stories. There has to be some moral of the story. There has to be some conflict. There has to be character and character development. These things are universal, which seem to tell us that they're not just culturally down, but there's something embedded into the world itself that we can't change. We have to conform to. Now I know you didn't explain it in that detail, but did we miss anything when you hit on movies about films and about the stories that you think also is a hint about the nature of the universe having a transcendent source?

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah. Thanks for letting me circle back to this and I'll just further my comments on just one or two short things here. Yeah, because this just hit me about five or six years ago, as I was thinking about it, that all movies and really other forms of storytelling, like novels, for example, really do boil down to the same form when you think about it, good and evil struggle, good loses for a while and then good eventually wins. It's not all, I mean, like I said and I do talk about a few exceptions, but I talk about them precisely because a lot of times they're not existentially satisfying because they deviate from that. I remember it just hit me of asking why is it like that? Why is there? And as you say, it's a good point that it's not culturally bound.

Gavin Ortlund: This is just pretty universal that we tend to make sense of reality by means of stories. And the stories tend to fall into that same shape. And I just draw from J. R. R. Tolkien and his idea that storytelling is actually revelatory. It actually shows us something about the underlying structure of reality. And I find that a far more enchanting way of looking at the world and I find it more plausible as well. And the last thing I'll say on this is as much as the new atheists today will very much, people like Sam Harris, for example, will very much be making moral appeals in their arguments. I think and I talk about this in the book as well. I think the older atheists were in some respects more authentic to their worldview because people like Nietzsche and Sartre. And I talk about the character Ivan in Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, they really did see through the implications of naturalism and show how devastating it is for that sense of moral hope and that sense of moral realism that's in all of our hearts.

Scott Rae: So Gavin, I'm going to put myself in the atheist shoes here for a minute and think about turning the tables on you. Are there certain things that exist in the world that don't seem to make sense from a Christian worldview or seem to have a better fit with naturalism than theism? What would you say to that?

Gavin Ortlund: My perspective is, I would say on the one hand, I'm not aware of anything that absolutely conclusively does not make sense in a Christian worldview. I'm not aware of anything like that. I can think of like that. On the other hand, I am aware of many things that are counterintuitive and difficult. And so I want to leave room, part of what I try the way I've tried to frame the book is I know what it's like to work through things and see their complexity and realize this is not always easy. It's not like anybody who is sincere is going to see the answer right away. I don't think faith is casual and easy. Sometimes I think it's the battle of a lifetime and you're working through things and it's of a holistic activity. That's not just our minds, but all aspects of our being.

Gavin Ortlund: So I don't think it's always easy, but ultimately I do think Christianity provides by far the best explanatory framework of our world. And I think that there's nothing that is absolutely irrational within it. Obviously the great challenge is evil and various manifestations of the problem of evil and as well as that, sometimes just things that are extreme counterintuitive. I remember when I was learning about the size of the universe, that was bracing, I thought, gosh, I didn't expect that. Why did God make it this way? It almost feels if we're his image bearers, it almost feels like painting this huge painting and putting the most important object in this tiny little corner of the painting. That's not an argument, it's just this feeling of what feels counterintuitive. So I want to leave space for that, but no, I am not aware of anything that is ultimately irrational or unable to be accounted for on atheistic worldview.

Sean McDowell: So your book is focused on naturalism. So you're not critiquing pantheism, not critiquing Islam, and some of that is because of your own experience in training, but you also mentioned the power of naturalism in the west. What we've talked about so far raises things like love and math and stories that resist a naturalistic worldview and seem to point towards a theistic reality. What moves you from believing this world is theistic to Christian particularity? Why believe Jesus is the God that these other things point towards?

Gavin Ortlund: Okay. Yes. Here is where, and this is where I land in chapter four of the book. When I may an argument from Christ as the hope of the story, I didn't expect this chapter to be as convincing. I've always had a thought, well, I guess I think philosophy can do more than history in terms of trying to prove these things. And I was once again, again this is why I so love apologetics. It was so helpful to me to see just how compelling the arguments can be from history for Christ. So the reason to answer the question, the reason I'm a Christian and I'm persuaded of the truth of the Christian gospel is I really see Christ as compelling in terms of what he claimed. So what I draw attention to in chapter four is two things. First, Jesus, I think it is on historical grounds by far the more plausible view to accept that Jesus did claim to be God.

Gavin Ortlund: And I just argue against [inaudible 00:26:47] on that. I think that whatever your view of scripture is just looking on historical grounds, I think it is absolutely unavoidable that we have this figure who came along a Jewish man in the first century who said, I'm God. All throughout the gospels, even by the most skeptical criteria to evaluate the gospels, you have this man who is charged of blasphemy for his claims to act with divine authority to forgive sins. He claims to sit in the seat of divine judgment and in Mark 14, when the high priest tears his robes. And so you say what, okay, what's the best explanation of that. And I just walk through the Lewis's categories of Lord, Liar, or Lunatic, and then we have to add on the legend category now from Airmen. I just say, I think the Lord category is the most compelling. I think it's the least awkward category.

Gavin Ortlund: Then I also make an argument from the resurrection, behind all of that is this more basic gut feeling. I just find him so compelling. It's hard to fully articulate why it's his personality, it's his combination of compassion and authority that just rings true. Ultimately I'm just drawn in. And then of course my own experience with Christ is a part of that as well. But that's really why I'm a Christian specifically.

Scott Rae: Gavin, this has been so helpful and so insightful. I want to commend our listeners to your book, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn't, subtitle the beauty of Christian theism. It's a bit different apologetic, but I think one that our listeners will find very helpful and very thoughtful. So we so appreciate what you've done with this. I want to remind our listeners that we have a followup with Gavin coming next week when he's going to develop in more detail, the argument from music that's not one that I think we've heard a lot about before, but in some of the discussion we've had about it, you said there's actually a world of literature about this, a whole philosophy of music that our listeners may be completely unfamiliar with. So we look forward to that and I want to invite our listeners to join us for that when we pursue in more detail next time, the argument for God from music. So Gavin, thanks so much for being with us. And we look forward to you being with us again next time.

Gavin Ortlund: Hey, thanks for having me guys, really enjoyed it.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically conversations on faith and culture. The Think biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online Bachelor's Program in Bible, Theology and Apologetics. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our special guest, Gavin Ortlund and his book, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn't. Give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Be sure and join us for the followup to this next week for part two, where we address the argument for God, from music. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.