6 Lies Christian Apologists Shouldn’t Buy

6 Lies Christian Apologists Shouldn’t Buy June 15, 2019

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.

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  • Rational Human

    “Christianity is true” may be one of those propositions on which all rational and completely informed people should, in principle, agree.

    How is it then, that Christianity has never swayed even a simple majority of the global population? I mean, you have had 2000 years to present your evidence, it would seem that something so obviously “true” would be almost universally accepted. What is more likely…that 70% of people are irrational or that your evidence is not nearly as strong or solid as you presuppose?

  • Sarah Flood

    I was fascinated by apologetics as a kid. I enjoy logic and love constructing a rational argument. I find it intellectually as satisfying as putting together a puzzle. But in the end, apologetics is a dry spiritual well. The point of spirituality is not to satisfy the brain, but the spirit, and this is where I think many Christian apologists, especially evangelicals, have gone wrong. Apologetics-heavy teaching is about as spiritually compelling and satisfying, to me, as a geometry proof (that is not to say that geometry cannot be spiritually satisfying, as Pythagoras found; it just isn’t *to me*). What I needed was connection to God that I could feel in my soul, and I found apologetics a sort of distraction from the emptiness I could feel. I could PROVE Jesus rose from the dead! I knew it! Why did I need to feel it? Why did knowing it leave me cold and empty? Because the point of the resurrection is that we, ourselves, are raised from spiritual death into life, and you better bet that a dead thing brought to life FEELS that difference viscerally. Knowing, intellectually, that it is alive is secondary to feeling breath and health and life pulse through your body in the same way that knowing colors exist is pale and sad next to actually SEEING colors.

    Until someone can see colors, you can insist all day long that they should mold their life around the fact that color exists and thus should really, really not wear THOSE pants with THAT shirt, but the person who cannot see colors, despite acknowledging that they exist, probably won’t care very much. Especially if they live in a world where most people cannot see color either and thus there is no external pressure to DO anything about the fact that color exists. You could give them treatises on the structure of the eye and the function of a prism and the reflective qualities of light, and it will be unpersuasive. If you have ever seen one of those videos where a colorblind person is given glasses that allows them to see color, you will see what I mean. Knowing that colors exist in the world and actually EXPERIENCING color are vastly different things. I fear that many, many evangelicals have traded experiencing for being factually convinced, and it really, really shows.

  • kyuss

    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.

    LOL. How about you give me a single reason why I should believe in christianity and not, say, hinduism? Or, failing that, give me one rational, logical reason why I should believe a single word of the buy bull?

  • John Purssey

    Perhaps you could explain your understanding of the purpose of apologetics. IIRC the early doctors of Christianity used proofs of the existence of God not for the purpose of convincing non-Christians, but more to assure Christians that Christianity has a reasonable framework.

    Apologetics seems to be part of the practice of constructing a world view of whatever a person seems most reasonable. What apologetics often seems to miss is its connection to a person’s experience. Experience is subjective and apologetics is attempting to be objective, if that is really possible for truth as well as facts. So I expect that for many people they may not be able to argue with a clever apologetic, but nevertheless will stick with their gut-feeling which they find to be a more reliable guide to life.

  • bill wald

    Agree 100% with the essay. (As a Calvinist) Bottom line is that one’s regeneration is God’s option, not ours, and regeneration precedes conversion. Not that it sounds equitable but seems to fit the world as I see it. I never wanted to become a Christian, felt compelled.

  • bill wald

    Agree! Protestant Christianity has more to help the poverty/working class than any other religion or philosophy.

  • bill wald

    That’s what Socrates was quoted as saying, “Moral people are happier than immoral people. Then why are most people not moral? Because most people are crazy.” Something like that.

  • bill wald

    Agree except for the word, “truth.” “Truth” should be relegated to the law courts and quiz games because it is ill-defined. I propose “well-accepted hypothesis.”

  • bill wald

    “Believe in” anything that gives give you peace in your mind. Reject that which upsetting.

  • Sarah Flood

    The word “truth” isn’t in my comment so I’m unsure what you mean.

  • bill wald

    Agree! I’m unsure what I meant.