Compiling the Apologist’s Handbook

Last summer, I had a long e-mail conversation, spanning several months and thousands of words, with a thoughtful, intelligent, but strongly committed conservative Christian named Daniel who came across my site. There was one exchange we had that I found illuminating and that stuck in my mind, and I want to talk about it today.

I wrote that when atheists commit a misdeed, we can’t just ask God for forgiveness; we have to seek out the people we’ve harmed and try to make things right. Daniel contended that this was the Christian view as well:

That’s the way God originally set it up. You treat people the way you want to be treated. When you mess up, you tell them, ask them to forgive you, and then make reparations as a sign of true humility and repentance. Admittedly, to our shame, this is not how Christians portray forgiveness.

I followed up on this by asking what would happen to a person who repented on his deathbed and died without any opportunity to make restitution. Daniel answered as follows:

Would I say he is going to heaven? I wouldn’t say at all. I would say that God will deal with him justly, and whatever God decides is what is right. As Paul says in Romans, it is not based on works, but on God who shows mercy.

These answers are, of course, completely inconsistent with each other. Either you believe that God requires people to make restitution, or you believe that you don’t know God’s criteria for judgment, but you can’t believe both.

What this exchange highlighted for me is this: Apologists through the ages have put enormous amounts of thought into resolving some of the moral and philosophical difficulties that arise from belief in Christianity. By now, their answers have been distilled into bumper-sticker-length talking points that most lay Christians can automatically quote in response to common challenges. But what’s more debatable is whether all those individual responses cohere with each other, as opposed to just serving the apologetic needs of the moment. As in the example with Daniel, I’ve observed that you can ask a question and get the usual well-rehearsed answer, then ask another question and get a different stock answer that contradicts the first one. In other cases, there are two equally common answers to the same question that contradict each other.

If Christianity was a coherent belief system that flowed from a consistent set of starting principles, this wouldn’t happen. On the other hand, if it’s the religious belief that comes first and then reasons justifying the belief are invented later, you’d expect that these inconsistencies would arise. I think that in the majority of cases, it’s the latter: even intelligent, well-read Christians are mainly coming up with ways to rationalize a belief they adopted for non-rational reasons.

To that end, I want to catalogue other contradictions like this. I want to highlight the inconsistencies in the apologist’s handbook of replies to common objections. I’ve already thought of a few others, like these:

“God is good and always wants the best for us.”
“God’s ways are not our ways and he is infinitely beyond our ability to judge.” (Then how do you know he’s good?)

“God doesn’t want to give us convincing evidence of his existence because it would take away our free will to believe.”
“God’s existence is clearly seen and those who disbelieve are without excuse.” (So we don’t have free will, then?)

“The Bible is God’s word and is infallible.”
“The Bible is infallible only in its original manuscripts, which no longer exist.” (Then the Bible we have, the one that Christians rely on as a source of guidance, is not infallible.)

But I bet there are others that I haven’t thought of. What can you suggest? I’m not looking for Bible verses that contradict each other – we have plenty of those – but for commonly heard apologetic arguments, whether found in the Bible or not, that are mutually exclusive.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.