Has Christian Apologetics Failed?

Has Christian Apologetics Failed? March 2, 2019

In the past year, I have been writing extensively about the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and what the Church can take away from it. As I and friends of mine have observed, Peterson’s rise has been sparking a surprising and heartening renewal of interest in spiritual things generally and Christianity specifically. Pastors all around the world have reported that people, young men in particular, are literally wandering into their churches for the first time at a shockingly accelerated rate. By any standard, this is good news for Christians. But it’s sparked a certain amount of reflection, some of which I summed up in my last post on the topic, “5 Lessons Jordan Peterson Has Taught the Church.” Today, I want to look at one specific sub-question that Peterson’s rise has induced in some of my discussion circles: Has Christian apologetics failed?

To imitate Peterson’s signature style of question-answering, it depends on what you mean by “apologetics.” And it depends on what you mean by “failed.”

Because “Christian apologetics” is not a monolith, it’s important to make some distinctions when answering this question. Are we talking about Ray Comfort, Sye Ten Bruggencate, and Ken Ham? Or are we talking about William Lane Craig, John Lennox, or Ravi Zacharias? Are we talking about young earth and global flood apologetics, or arguments for the resurrection and the reliability of the gospels? Are we talking about general arguments for theism? Are we talking in broad outline about any attempt to “reason one’s way to God” within what some might pejoratively call a “modernist frame?” It’s not my intent to do a deep dive into all the various and sundry “apologetics cottage industries” here. My point is simply that context matters, and the answer to our main question will vary depending on which context we choose.

Before we decide if apologetics of any stripe has failed, we need to establish what it means to “succeed.” In light of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, people seem to be defining “success” as “inducing an openness to Christianity among atheists.” This is a familiar metric, especially for evangelicals. It gives us an understandable adrenaline rush to see people knocking on the Church’s door rather than vice versa. We want to look out and see our pews full of visitors. We want to hold campus events and “pull them in.” We want long lines of people waiting to ask questions.

It is very tempting to deem pulling in people from the out-group the gold standard by which a thing’s “success” is measured. For years, people have tended to view apologetics as primarily Christians trying to keep each other within the in-group—hence, by this metric, a failure. But setting aside for the moment whether this is actually an accurate description of the apologetics movement, I don’t buy this metric. Because I actually happen to think Christianity is true and rational, I regard maintaining stasis within the Church as a worthy goal in and of itself.

This metric is statistically sloppy as well. Counting the noses of former Sam Harris fanboys who have made a full conversion to evangelical Christianity won’t take into account the many people who would have left the church if it weren’t for apologetics. The reality on the ground is far more complicated than “Christians sitting around agreeing with each other.” Plenty of people inside the church, especially young people, have been on the bubble between faith and no faith as they work through concrete doubts. I have seen it multiple times even just in the small sample size of churches in my small hometown. The myth persists that all Christian kids are perfectly fine until college, whereupon the atheist professor from God’s Not Dead shatters their faith and they come home an atheist. But in my experience, signs of trouble tend to manifest much sooner. It’s just that they are often not properly attended to until it’s too late. More on this anon.

Turning now to the question of how many people apologetics has pulled in from the out-group, it would also be hasty to say apologetics has been a failure here. It’s true that, culturally speaking, we haven’t seen a dramatic Great Awakening of people flooding into churches because they watched William Lane Craig spank Christopher Hitchens on YouTube and saw the light. It’s true that apologetics has never catalyzed a clearly definable “hot spot” of renewed interest in church and Christianity on the scale of what we are currently observing with the Jordan Peterson phenomenon.

But just as it would be a grave statistical error to say that “pro-life Christians don’t care about babies after they’re born” just because the many pro-life Christians who do aren’t constantly tweeting about it, it would be a grave statistical error to say that “apologetics never converted anybody” just because contravening data isn’t making it into large social surveys. This is particularly true when we factor in the quiet, unsung work of “one-dollar apologists,” not just the big names everyone recognizes. I know for a fact that these conversations are constantly taking place on Skype, on email, in private message, and in private offices, and that they are bearing fruit. Often, they are bearing fruit with people who grew up in the church, left, and are only now getting the answers they never got before to their questions. Some of them are pastors’ kids.

This is not the stuff of which eye-catching op-eds and splashy pieces of investigative journalism are made. It is, to a great extent, an underground phenomenon. But it is no less real for being less visible. For that reason, it is imperative that people pause before making sweeping, unqualified statements like “Apologetics has failed,” or “Apologetics doesn’t work.”

Better: “Apologetics doesn’t work, according to my limited anecdotal experience, although of course I and/or my interlocutors could be wrong.”

Or, “Apologetics doesn’t work, because I personally am not sure how to answer certain objections, although it is entirely possible that my judgment is poor and my investigation has been sloppy.”

Or, “Apologetics doesn’t work, from within my particular frame for faith, although admittedly I do not prioritize evidential questions and thus haven’t thought about any of this very much.”

Or, “Apologetics doesn’t work, because something-something narrowly propositional Enlightenment rationalism, although admittedly I just got that from a book, whose author got it from another book, whose author got it from Alister McGrath, so maybe history of ideas by meme isn’t the best way to do history of ideas.

Sorry, I let my snark get the best of me on that last one, but you get the idea. Such qualifying statements, open to correction and open to learning more, would help enormously in the furthering of fruitful in-house dialogue about these questions.

All of that being said, there are still people, some of whom walked away from the Church and are now fans of Jordan Peterson, who will say “William Lane Craig didn’t do it for me.” Craig is not necessarily my personal favorite Christian apologist (don’t @ me), nevertheless he is the name I tend to see most cited as the “poster boy” for Christian apologetics writ large, most likely because he has debated so many New Atheists. And he is a formidable debater, no question. But not everyone has walked away convinced. Why not?

First, let’s be honest: It’s ridiculously easy to generate a long list of objections to Christianity. The phrase “ridiculously easy” is carefully chosen. It takes ignorance ten seconds to ask a question that requires careful scholarship ten pages to answer carefully. Some will automatically take such thoroughness as a sign that the lady doth protest too much. Of course, a brief response will be waved away as embarrassingly insufficient. For some skeptics, this truly is a “heads I win, tails you lose” affair.

Those of us who are familiar with such tactics from long experience have learned to recognize them for what they are and give them little serious attention. Unfortunately, not everyone has, and this is where the trouble begins. The sheer amount of ink spilled on the skeptical side of the topic, some of it by people with an alphabet soup of letters after their name, can catch a wavering young person like a deer in the headlights. The fact that apologists like Craig deliberately adopt a “minimalist” approach doesn’t always aid matters here. Skeptical sophists like Bart Ehrman require a broader set of tools than many apologists have in their toolkit to refute fully. (For that reason, I regard Ehrman as a more serious threat than the likes of Sam Harris. Fortunately, there are more than ample resources against his particular brand of academic sleaze, most recently and notably Peter Williams’ little gem Can We Trust the Gospels?)

At that point, there are a couple familiar scenarios that tend to unfold. The first scenario, which a number of apologists rightly lament, is when this young person actually brings his questions to an authority figure in his church and receives no answers, or insufficient answers. Perhaps the church subscribes to a fideist strain of thought that distrusts questions. Perhaps the people in his church would like to help but are as stymied as he is and unsure where to look for answers. Perhaps they sincerely believe his problems are nothing that an increased dose of prayer and Bible reading won’t cure.

The second scenario, which doesn’t make as good fodder for apologetics presentations but is an equally painful reality, is when resources and people with answers are actually very ready to hand, but the de-convert in progress simply doesn’t avail himself of them. Maybe when he asks his pastor “Since evolution is a fact, what have you got for me?” and the pastor says “I don’t accept the premise, but can we still talk?” he says, “Oh. Never mind,” with no further questions asked. Maybe he gets the idee fixe that as long as somebody, somewhere, can think of some objection to raise to whatever even his best-informed friends provide him, he must remain permanently agnostic. Or maybe he is just embarrassed to ask anyone and foolishly decides to fly by the seat of his pants.

This is to say nothing of the possibility which can never be assumed out of hand, but still is an unfortunate reality, namely that intellectual doubts are increasingly accompanied by an erosion of sound thought on sexual ethics. Sometimes, this erosion comes with a deeply personal price tag. When these things are all braided together, it’s small wonder that the line for the Uncomfortable Truths booth is so short.

All of this information must be kept in our minds as we consider the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. We must recognize the fact that the vast majority of his audience wrote orthodox Christianity off long ago, many of them by way of one of the two scenarios sketched above. But it’s not William Lane Craig’s fault that there are people who lost their faith after trying unsuccessfully to hang it on William Lane Craig. If you are reading this, and you are one of those people, then hear me well: A celebrity apologist on YouTube is no substitute for a friend who will meet for coffee once a week to talk about your doubts. William Lane Craig cannot answer all of your questions, not only because he does not know all the answers, but because he does not know youIf you trawl through some two-hour Christian versus atheist debates and still feel yourself drifting, don’t keep trying to fly solo. Complicated questions are not best settled in two-hour debates, and doubts are not best wrestled with alone. They are best discussed in community, even if it’s only a community of two.

Jordan Peterson has gifts William Lane Craig does not have. He does things William Lane Craig cannot do. And he does it all while not being a Christian, which disproportionately tilts ears in his direction right out of the gate. But this need not motivate a wringing of hands or a feverish reevaluation of our game plan, because apologetics was never about having a “game plan.” It was about illuminating a path. It was about letting people know that God has not left Himself without witness. It was about making resources and answers available for whoever wanted to access them, whenever they were ready. But not everybody is ready. Some people need a push. When they won’t listen to their mom, they’ll listen to the teacher who sits them down and tells them to clean their room. When they won’t listen to the Christian apologist or the pastor, they’ll listen to the psychology professor who says, “No, but really. You should read your Bible.”

Let me close with a true story. A while back, I saw a Peterson fan on Twitter saying that he had converted to Christianity in no small measure with Peterson’s help. I was intrigued, so I asked if he would be willing to share his story with me. He did, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say it was one of the most heartening things I’d read all year. His journey was the kind of journey I wish for every fan of Peterson. Here’s how it goes.

This young man (whose name he hasn’t shared publicly, so for his privacy I’ll call him Jay), shared that he was raised in a religious home, attended private Christian school and considered himself a Christian until age 20. In college, he drifted away after the rational foundations of his faith were eroded by the usual suspects—higher criticism, attacks on the Old Testament legal code, trouble with doctrines like original sin and eternal conscious torment for the damned, etc.

All of this was happening at the same time that Jay’s father was dying of cancer.

After stumbling through this “painful and bewildering” process and emerging an atheist, he quickly began reading Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Richard Carrier. He prided himself on his newly minted commitment to Reason and Logic (TM). While honing his skills as an angry, gleefully vindictive Internet atheist, he was secretly spiraling into depression, which would later develop into a multi-substance addiction. He began to wonder if perhaps there was a God after all—a cruel, evil God who delighted in causing people pain.

But when Jay encountered Peterson, his atheistic arrogance was brought up short. Peterson’s sharp words of tough love about confronting the ugliness within your own heart and setting your house in perfect order convicted him. He looked inside himself and no longer liked what he saw. He began to listen to his conscience. He saw himself in the Cain and Abel story. He saw that he was Cain.

One moment in particular was a watershed: a clip on YouTube labeled “Jordan Peterson–His Finest Moment,” where a very raw, disheveled, sleep-deprived Peterson fairly shouts his Stoic philosophy into the camera. “Pick up your cross, and bear it!” Deep inside, something broke in Jay. Without knowing why, he began to cry. As he put it to me, that was when he began walking down the path “that would lead to the cross.”

Things were looking up, but something still seemed like it was missing. Jay no longer lived his life with bitterness and resentment, but there was a need that was still unmet. Peterson told him to pick up his own cross, but could he really save himself? He still struggled with a chemical dependence that felt beyond his control. It was around this time that he found Peterson’s appearance with William Lane Craig, in a dialogue titled “Is there meaning to life?” He had written Craig off before (“mostly because he was a Christian fundamentalist who soundly defeated every secular opponent he faced, which was pretty annoying”), but now he listened with fresh ears. Craig’s comments didn’t have Peterson’s drive and unpolished passion, but they made sense. They felt grounded.

Another stepping stone on the journey was the work of my friend Paul VanderKlay, whose YouTube channel I’ve highlighted before. Paul was a Christian who was willing to dig deeply into Peterson’s work on its own terms and unpack the layers behind it without wrapping up all his videos with a five-part gospel presentation. He enjoyed playing with ideas for their own sake. He was willing to learn from Peterson, not just rush to fill in the gaps—although he gently pointed out the gaps where they existed. (You can watch an informal conversation between Paul and Peterson himself hereIn this video, Paul analyzes William Lane Craig versus Jordan Peterson’s approach.)

Finally, one night, overcome with the weight of his sin and poor choices, Jay turned to the one option he hadn’t tried yet: prayer. He couldn’t seem to pull himself out of the pit. But maybe God could. That night, he put his daughter to bed and lay down next to her. With no pills or alcohol, he fell asleep—deeply, fully, easily.

It has been four months since he wrote me. To my knowledge, he is still sober. He tries to read the Bible and pray daily, treating it like an exercise regimen. He is still asking questions, and he still doesn’t have all the answers. But he knows which way to walk. And he has taken for his prayer a line from C.T. Studd (misattributed by some to C. S. Lewis): “That when I die, all hell rejoices that I am out of the fight.”

This is Jay’s story. It gives me joy whenever I think about it. Hopefully it gives you joy too. And hopefully it helps to answer the question we began with. Has apologetics failed? To ask such a question is to make apologetics into something it is not. Who can trace the path of an individual soul? Who can predict the twists and curves, the kind strangers and helpful guides who might point the way forward? Who can predict the prophets who might emerge, gaunt with fasting, haggard with pain, crying “Woe! Woe!” Who can predict the moment when long-buried longing begins to stir? Who can predict when the dam will break, and the tears come flooding? Who can predict when the old, familiar voice will come through at last, calling “Come home! Come home!”

None can know. None can measure. None but God. Into His hands, let us commit our spirits.

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