I’ve occasionally been described by people slightly familiar with my work as an “evangelical apologist.” Depending on who assigns that sort of a label, this could bring any number of assumptions and connotations along with it in the mind of the giver. In my case, a good number of them are probably going to be incorrect. As a cradle Continuing Anglican, I’ve always been on the outside looking in at evangelical church culture, despite my deep appreciation for some of the historical roots thereof. (This makes me either its best or its worst critic, depending on your point of view.) Perhaps it’s my lifelong practice of the via media that makes me just as happy to see a skeptical convert make his way to the doors of a Catholic church as a Protestant one.
However, while I may not be a particularly evangelical apologist, I think I could fairly be labeled as an apologist, and a fairly experienced one at that. When I look at the field of apologetics, I see good work being done. At the same time, I see a lot of room for improvement. Today, I want to look at six lies Christian apologists might be tempted to buy.
Lie #1: Everyone will be persuaded by rational arguments for theism or Christianity, given enough time and persistence on your part.
It may, in fact, be true that there is no good rational excuse not to be a Christian once a person has been sufficiently well-informed of the evidence. “Christianity is true” may be one of those propositions on which all rational and completely informed people should, in principle, agree. Since we like to think of people as generally rational, and since like good apologists we come over-loaded with all the information they might be lacking and more, surely we can make this ideal a reality, right?
Bad news: We can’t, and we won’t. This is certainly not to say that we shouldn’t make good information available or take confidence in the strength of our position. But people are not always rational or clear-thinking. Even when the best possible evidence is served up to them gourmet style, like Remy’s brother in Ratatouille some will munch it down and fail to taste the difference from their normal fare. Others perhaps might feel the pull, might want to believe. But something, whatever it is, still lies in the way.
Will this be your fault? Sometimes, yes. Maybe you ran through your talking points in a mechanical way instead of pausing to listen and have a conversation. Maybe you didn’t consider the possibility that the person you were talking to knows something you don’t. Maybe you didn’t realize you were talking to someone who’s seen three times as much life as you have and isn’t looking for a list of four minimal facts.
But maybe it’s not you. Maybe you made your appeal as sensitively and well as you possibly could have, and it still plinked off the surface, or maybe even backfired. This will happen. It will happen often. So manage your expectations now.
Lie #2: Christian apologists have a complete, fully satisfying answer to every possible skeptical objection.
This is a tough one to swallow. It would be nice if it were true. Unfortunately, this, too, is a lie. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone raise a truly knotty problem, only to see several people at once gesture to some book that’s supposed to “take care of it” (but actually doesn’t). Does this mean I think even the knottiest objections are defeaters for Christianity? No. I believe the case for Christianity is a tough enough cumulatively woven fiber to withstand a few conundrums and anomalies. Nevertheless, it is a fact that every theory has anomalies, including Christianity. Apologists should recognize and face this fact head-on, even if it means they need to respond to a question with the dreaded words, “Fair question. I don’t know.”
Lie #3: Apologetics is all about getting people saved.
First, if you take upon yourself the burden of saving every skeptical person you meet with apologetics, you’re doing it wrong and you will drive yourself insane (see Lie #1). Second, the apologist should see keeping church people churched as an end in itself. It’s not a particularly sexy goal, it’s not a goal that will generate juicy numbers in Barna polls, but it is a valuable goal. Nose-counting polls tell you nothing about counter-factuals. They tell you nothing about how many people would have left the Church had they not been strengthened in their faith by a reasoned case. (For more of my thoughts on this issue cum obligatory Jordan Peterson tie-in, see my post “Has Christian Apologetics Failed?” ) And besides all this, doing apologetics with excellence is itself an end in itself. A well-crafted argument, like a well-crafted painting or a well-cooked meal, is a thing of beauty. We hear all the time about art for art’s sake. We should hear and talk more of reason for reason’s sake.
Lie #4: Apologetics will always keep church people churched.
Yes, I know, I just said keeping church people churched should be a goal of apologetics, which I meant. I believe every word of that. But this is still a lie. Apologetics may keep your son churched, or your daughter churched. But, also, it may not. Parents in particular need to understand this. It will not aid their understanding if apologetic materials are marketed to them as guaranteed, fool-proof ways to Keep Your Kid Churched, rather than tools or aids you are strongly encouraged to use to that end while acknowledging that ultimately, free will is as free will does.
Lie #5: The best vehicle for apologetics is oral debate.
And campus apologetics ministry leaders everywhere said “What?” Dear campus apologetics ministry leaders: I regret to inform you that this, too, is a lie. The reasons it is a lie are several. To begin with, most Christian apologists shouldn’t do debates. Debating is a skill. It requires discipline, practice, a knowledge base, and, bluntly, chops. As with any difficult skill that takes chops and practice to master, the talent pool is limited. Yet, unfortunately, virtually every Christian apologist will at some point believe he has to do a debate, because… well, because debates are the done thing, right?
This is not to take anything away from the gift people like William Lane Craig or John Lennox have been to the apologetic world. These guys are like inspired natural tacticians who blow their opponents off the chessboard in the middle-game every time. But the danger is that their admirers will conclude they can always reproduce the same results and neglect the endgame accordingly, with disastrous consequences. Opponents like Bart Ehrman may be wrong, but they are not stupid. If you launch an attack without laying the proper groundwork, they will calmly take the sacrificed material and ask you where your compensation is, exactly. That’s when you will realize you’re in trouble. Or the audience will, if you don’t.
Furthermore, the debate format of its nature limits what even a Craig or a Lennox can accomplish within its parameters. Craig in particular has honed a certain style of minimalism that serves him well for his purposes. Is it one way to go about making a case for Christianity? Yes. Is it the best way? In my judgment, no. The case for Christianity is best appreciated when it is given time to open and ripen and be savored to its fullest. It is best served in written form, in long-form dialogues, and in lecture series with small groups who have lots of time to ask thoughtful questions. It is not best served in choppy, 15-minute segments wherein large, vital chunks of the testaments old and new are “conceded for the sake of the argument.”
Lie #6: Apologetics must always come before gospel preaching.
This lie springs from the truth that one must always know one’s audience, and an audience predisposed to be skeptical may tune out of yet another gospel presentation. It is true that a good conversation should be naturally guided by the interests, inclinations and curiosity level of the person you’re talking with. But, by the same token, why should we assume that the people we encounter are not curious or hungry for the gospel? Why should we assume that they will even be particularly interested in a rapid-fire round of apologetic case-making? Maybe they’d be more interested to hear that there might be a God who loves them. Maybe they’d be more interested to hear whether they can ever be forgiven for their sins.
Pluralism is the currency of our age, but Christians must take care that it not make us self-conscious. We have the words of life. We should never be hesitant to speak them.
If you are an aspiring apologist, I hope this is helpful to you, as uncomfortable as some of it might sound. Learn to recognize these pitfalls now, and you will already have a leg up on many working apologists today. You may still never be ready to go out and slay dragons for the kingdom (see Lie #5), but with all the knowledge you’re bursting to share, hopefully you will be better prepared to meet the world with it.