Apologetics as devotional
Much of the discussion in apologetics over the last few decades has centered on the proper apologetic methodology. For example, one sort of presuppositionalist thinks that we should start with the assumption that Christianity is true and then, on the basis of this assumption, our apologetic task is to show others how Christianity makes sense of many of the most important features of reality, such as moral facts and the regularity of nature. The evidentialist disagrees saying that we can use the principles of reason and give arguments, both philosophical and historical, in defense of the truths of Christianity. The classical evidentialist thinks we should first argue for the existence of God and only then proceed to argue for the particular truths of Christianity. Other evidentialists think that one can start with making arguments straightaway for the truths of Christianity.
On my view, this sort of discussion, though at some points interesting, often turns into unhelpful hairsplitting. The reality is that, in practice, the work of apologetics is never quite as neat and tidy as these methodologies imply. We might get an opportunity here and another one there to offer reasons for the hope within. Moreover, people are simply at different places in their journey and it is not always clear (even to them) where they are at on this journey. They may just have an intellectual worry or two that prevents them from being open to the Gospel. I find many non-Christians convinced that the Bible is riddled with contradictions and that it would thus be ridiculous to take it as authoritative. Others find problematic particular events in the Old Testament or the existence of pervasive evil in the world or think that one has to blindly and uncritically believe in the truths of Christianity if one was to believe at all. One of these objections may be all that stands between one resisting a Gospel presentation and placing one’s faith in Christ. It seems to me that the apologist must be nimble enough to make a case that fits the needs of the individual person rather than being constrained by a particular methodology.
It seems to me that the apologist must be nimble enough to make a case that fits the needs of the individual person rather than being constrained by a particular methodology.
Given this, I want to suggest an approach of a different sort for doing apologetics. The first step is to commit to cultivating the life of the mind such that we buck the contemporary anti-intellectual trend that has progressively become dominant in the church over the last century or so. This anti-intellectualism is deeply problematic given that some of the challenges to the reasonableness of the Christian faith require robust intellectual responses. That is, some of these challenges call for the hard work of making subtle distinctions and crafting carefully worked out arguments.
The problem is that many in the church today are simply not well equipped to make these distinctions and arguments. That, it is often thought, is the work of the pastor or the Christian academic. However, in 2 Corinthians 10:4, Paul describes the work of the Christ follower as being, at least in part, one of tearing down fortresses. What sort of fortresses does Paul have in mind? He clarifies in verse 5 saying, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” How are ideas and speculations destroyed? They must be refuted.
We run into ideas all the time, especially in our media-soaked culture, and some of these ideas are indeed contrary to the knowledge of God. It seems to me that every Disney movie peddles the same idea. It always comes down to that we should be true to ourselves and follow our hearts, or something to that effect. Well, this is an idea set up against the knowledge of God since our hearts are fickle and wicked (see Jer. 17:9) and people that follow their hearts (e.g., for example in their marriages or in the workplace, etc.) often ruin their lives. There are many other ideas that just seem embedded in the fabric of our culture that also run contrary to the knowledge of God. However, we won’t be effective in engaging and destroying these ideas unless we develop our minds in thinking and reasoning well. (I don’t have the space to develop how to go about cultivating the life of the mind but a crucial element is reading important books, some of which should be difficult and not altogether fun. One that is not too difficult that I highly recommend for more about developing yourself intellectually is a book entitled Love Your God with all Your Mind by J.P. Moreland.)
However, we won’t be effective in engaging and destroying these ideas unless we develop our minds in thinking and reasoning well.
So the first step is to cultivate the life of the mind. The second step is to do something that can be intimidating. In fact, I recommend starting slowly and enlisting the help of others who are further along in this regard. As we are ready for it, we should start to wrestle honestly with those ideas that challenge the truths of Christianity. For example, the Christian conception of God is that he is among other things all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. However, the fact that there is widespread pain and suffering in the world makes belief in God deeply problematic for many people, given that an all-powerful God should be able to, an all-knowing God should know how to, and an all-good God should want to eradicate evil. Now, I think there are some good responses to this problem (known as the problem of evil), but there are also many responses that I find lacking. Here’s a response one might give: God is pictured in Scripture as a disciplining father where the discipline is unpleasant but the discipline builds character (see Heb. 12:7-13, for example). Thus maybe all instances of pain and suffering are the loving hand of God disciplining us for character building.
Now let’s ask how good of a solution this is. It doesn’t take long to call to mind the most recent mega-tragedy. Let’s take the 2010 earthquake in Haiti where the death toll is estimated at over 300,000. Does our proposed solution to the problem of evil work in the Haiti case? We would assume that with that large of a number, it is likely that a fair share of the dead were children. There must have even been some newborn babies who died and died in a difficult way. It is not a stretch to assume that there were at least a few newborn babies who suffered terribly and then died after days of intense pain. Can we call these instances of pain and suffering acts of loving discipline? This looks more like abuse than it does discipline, and it seems to be a tough sell, especially to those touched by a tragedy like this. It is not as if the baby’s character is somehow developed. So, it seems that though there are of course instances of suffering properly characterized as God’s discipline, it doesn’t look like this works as the way we should understand all pain and suffering.
The point is not to solve or even here respond to the problem of evil. Rather the point is to notice what we have been doing. We are starting to wrestle with an issue and have thoughtfully critiqued a proposed solution that proves inadequate. Why not just let the solution stand and go about doing other things with our day? For one, some of us are not so constituted to be able to do that. Some of us lay awake at night with these sorts of issues, and the easy answer is really no answer at all. Secondly, we lose our voice on this issue when others see these backdoor tactics taken. This is especially true when we write off someone’s actual experiences of pain from some tragic loss with easy answers. Third, and most importantly, we fail, on my view, to worship God. We do not love God with our minds when we knowingly give thin answers for deeply important questions.
We should notice that on this approach to apologetics I haven’t so far said anything about engaging with atheists and non-Christians with arguments and debate. What I have recommended is more like a devotional exercise. It seems to me that if we will do this devotional work, when asked by others to give an account for the hope within, our answers should flow from this source powerfully. If you have thoughtfully and deeply engaged the problem of evil, for example, as you begin to gain some insight on the issue, then you will be a powerful voice to those whose assent to the truth of Christianity is blocked by this problem.