“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).
THE GENERAL PROBLEM, the problem that faces anyone with a message nowadays, is the broad cultural doubt about absolutes and the authority figures who presume to enforce them. Interestingly, a byproduct of this type of skepticism leads to complacent satisfaction with what one already knows and believes. I’m reminded of a comment I heard at a seminar years ago. The facilitator of the meeting said, “There is what we know and there’s what we don’t know, but more importantly there’s what we don’t know that we don’t know. Brilliant!
Alan Bloom, in his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, said openness results in American conformism—out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here in America we can create all the lifestyles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Bloom says, “Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing.”
It begs the question: If there are no grounds upon which one can argue that one civilization is superior to another, or that one moral code is loftier than another, or that one way of doing things is better than another, then why bother learning about other cultures and philosophies and religions? What begins as a political value of coexisting with differences and resisting authoritarianism that would squelch individuality has become, ironically, a broad indifference to difference and a disincentive to improving oneself by learning from others.
Christians have a particularly hard time getting the message of the Gospel across to people today. A Christian sharing his or her faith is almost immediately labeled a Bible-thumping wingnut or, worse, a narrow-minded elitist. The other person is typically not inclined to sit still for any length of time to listen to an argument on the Gospel. They are especially unwilling to tolerate any sort of suggestion that they need to convert to Christianity. My life is just fine the way it is, thank you very much! Moreover, statistically most Americans today believe they are already Christians. They celebrate Christmas and Easter, go to church on a fairly regular basis, and treat the poor and disadvantaged with compassion. If they think they are a Christian, why would they need to hear from someone else about the Christian faith? Especially if they think they’re going to hear a lecture that they’re really not much of a Christian.
Detractors of the Christian Faith
“The number-one attraction to the Christian faith is other Christians. Unfortunately, however, the number-one detraction to the Christian faith is other Christians.” (Pastor Mike Miller)
Several years ago Hollywood gave us an in-depth look at ongoing child molestation in the Archdiocese of Boston in the docudrama Spotlight starring Michael Keaton. Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy, the Archdiocese quietly settled scores of sexual abuse cases leveled against at least 70 priests in Boston. The Spotlight investigative team of the Boston Globe found court records and other documents that identified 19 present and former priests who had been accused as pedophiles. The investigative team discovered that the church’s annual directories showed as many as 107 priests were removed from parishes and placed in such categories as “sick leave” or “absent on leave” and “awaiting assignment.”
Cardinal Bernard Law, Archdiocese of Boston
The child molestation problem in the Catholic church is only one of numerous failings atheists and doubters like to cite when attacking Christianity. As scandals go, the one involving Jim Bakker was huge. Bakker was accused of raping Jessica Hahn, a church secretary, then paying $279,000 for her silence. Hahn blew the whistle on questionable financial doings at PTL, a conglomerate of the Bakkers that included the church, a televangelist network, a theme park, a water park, and an extravagant residential complex. As a result of Ms. Hahn’s whistle blowing, Jim Bakker was found guilty on 24 counts of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was paroled after serving 5 years behind bars.
In 1988, Jimmy Swaggart was implicated in a sex scandal involving a prostitute that resulted in his suspension and ultimate defrocking by the Assemblies of God church. Of course, this led to Swaggart’s now-famous “I have sinned” speech on television. Swaggart was found in the company of another prostitute in 1991, but refused to talk about the incident, deciding it was “flat none of your business.” Several prominent pastors have also come under fire for amassing fortunes and living an opulent lifestyle. Joel Osteen is said to have a personal net worth of $40 million. Kenneth Copeland (The Believer’s Voice of Victory) is worth approximately $760 million. Pat Roberson is said to have a personal net worth of $100 million. Copeland owns a $17.5 million jet, and lives in a lakefront mansion worth $6 million. The median salary of a pastor in America as of March 2018 is $93,760.
Unfortunately, Christianity in North America has suffered considerably from the widely reported—and widely enjoyed—failures of prominent clergy. Over and over again, talk-radio shows that feature religion have been besieged by callers who wanted to report on personal disappointments with people who call themselves Christians. An abusive father here, a repressive mother there; a flirtatious pastor or licentious youth leader; a thieving church treasurer or a dishonest employee who had proudly proclaimed his faith—over and over again, people of all walks of life report encounters with repellent Christians guilty of rather questionable behavior. These individuals come to symbolize Christianity to their victims, and the pain that they cause sticks to the religion they profess.
A Sign of the Times
We live in a sort-of time-between-the-times, in which people raised in a more or less Christian culture now are reacting against it. This condition especially afflicts Baby Boomers, that generation that has defined itself so centrally as rebelling against “the Establishment.” Christianity was a part of the regime of Mom and Dad against whom they were reacting. Christian apologetics, accordingly, will have to be especially sensitive to this sort of resentment, as well as the incredulity expressed by many over outrageous scandals like the ones I described above. With the increasing presence of believers of other faiths, especially Islam, we are being forced to express a multicultural acceptance of the beliefs of others, sometimes to the subduing or exclusion of our own Christian beliefs. Again, Christians are considered narrow-minded, bigoted, elitist, and just plain dumb. This gulf today is essentially between liberalism and conservatism.
Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade (Douthat, 2007). A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. For example, in Europe Christianity is growing modestly and Islam is growing exponentially, while fundamentalism is coming under constant vitriolic fire in the U.S.
As a child, the plausibility of a faith usually rests on the authority of others, but when we reach adulthood there is a need for personal, firsthand experience as well. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior the year I turned thirteen. I was baptized as an outward public sign of my new faith. I do not recall experiencing the presence of God. I unfortunately fell by the wayside for decades, struggling for forty years in active addiction. It took a 12-Step program to give me back the God of my youth and to discover the meaning of spirituality. I learned that we cannot inherit our salvation from our parents. Ultimately, I came to grips with my own faults, powerlessness, and problems. It was painful, but it has proven to make all the difference in my adult life. It has created in me an absolute conviction of the reality of the Good News of the Gospel.
Can Doubt be a Powerful Tool?
Is certainty overrated? Today’s militant atheists believe no one can prove the existence of God, so why bother trying? The late Christopher Hitchens, an atheist known across academia as a defender of science and reality, was fond of stating that parents’ forcing their faith in God on their children is a form of child abuse, adding that it predisposes children to believing a myth rather than seeking observable, verifiable truth.
Is it wrong to have doubts about your faith in God? Scripture says without faith it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11:6), and that a person who doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from Him (see James 1:7). In Matthew 9:23-25, we read about a father who brought his son to Jesus seeking healing for a life-long disease, perhaps epilepsy. The father said to Jesus, “If you can do anything…” Jesus replied, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes.” The man answered, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (NIV). So there is nothing unusual for even a Christian to experience doubt. In fact, even among the disciples some doubted.
Christianity isn’t about having faith in faith alone. The Greek word for faith (pistis) is a derivative of the Greek word for persuasion (peitho). In other words, faith is not merely a blind, mindless acceptance of things our parents told us. Instead, it is a confidence based upon convincing evidence. Perhaps this is why Josh and Sean McDowell titled their book on seeking evidence in support of the Gospel Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This father-and-son team wanted to help arm Christians who have been stumped by arguments against the Bible or Christianity. I’ve actually been told that Christianity is nothing but a fairy tale, unsupported by scientific fact. Lee Strobel, an award-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune, set out to prove to his wife and the rest of the world that Christianity was bunk. What resulted was his book The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. The book also led to a major motion picture of the same name, and a series of books to follow.
Was Jesus an Apologist?
Jesus was a brilliant thinker, who used logical arguments to refute His critics and establish the truth of His views. When Jesus praised the faith of children, He was encouraging humility as a virtue, not irrational religious trust or a blind leap of faith in the dark. Jesus deftly employed a variety of reasoning strategies in His debates on various topics. These include escaping the horns of a dilemma, a fortiori arguments, appeals to evidence, and reductio ad absurdum arguments. Jesus’ use of persuasive arguments demonstrates that He was both a philosopher and an apologist who rationally defended His worldview in discussions with some of the best thinkers of His day. This intellectual approach does not detract from His divine authority but enhances it.
Jesus’ high estimation of rationality and His own application of arguments indicate that Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith. Followers of Jesus today, therefore, should emulate His intellectual zeal, using the same kinds of arguments He Himself used. Jesus’ argumentative strategies have applications to four contemporary debates: (i) the relationship between God and morality; (ii) the reliability of the New Testament; (iii) the resurrection of Jesus; and (iv) ethical relativism.
Apologetics Strengthens Believers
Many Christians claim to believe in Jesus, but only a minority can articulate good reasons for why their beliefs are true. When Christians learn good evidences for the truth of the Bible, for the existence of God, or how to respond to tough challenges to the faith, they gain confidence in their beliefs. Numerous studies show a number of students tend to leave the church during their college years. While they leave for many different kinds of reasons (moral, volitional, emotional, relational, etc.), intellectual questions are one important factor. Young people have genuine intellectual questions. And when these questions are not answered, many leave the church. Perhaps the contemporary church needs a renewal of apologetics.
People naturally have questions. They always have and always will. Jesus understood this. One of the key functions of apologetics, then, is to respond to questions and clear away objections people have that hinder their trust in Christ. Apologist, author, and speaker Ravi Zacharias emphasizes the important impact of an alert response to someone’s question, even in a small way: “Do not underestimate the role you play in clearing the obstacles in someone’s spiritual journey. A seed sown here, a light shone there, may be all that is needed to move someone one step further.”
Evangelism and apologetics are closely related. Both have a common general goal: encouraging commitment to Jesus Christ. In fact, in certain theological circles, apologetics has been labeled pre-evangelism. On this understanding, apologetics clears the ground for evangelism; it makes evangelism more effective by preemptively addressing impediments to hearing the Gospel. This is certainly true, but apologetics is also useful in the midst of the presentation of the Gospel and after the presentation of the Gospel. In other words, there is no moment in which a Christian takes off his or her evangelist hat and puts on their apologist hat. The relationship is more seamless than that. The difference between the two is one of focus rather than substance. Evangelism is focused on presenting the Gospel; apologetics is focused on defending and commending the Gospel. There is, moreover, an important difference in the audience of evangelism and apologetics. Evangelism is done only with non-Christians, but apologetics is done with Christians and non-Christians alike.
Next Monday I will delve into “There Can’t Be Only One True Religion, Can There?”
Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Douthat, R. (July/August 2007). “Crisis of Faith.” The Atlantic Monthly.
McDowell, J. and McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Updated and Expanded. Nashville, TN: Thomas Collins.