Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
This is the last in a six-part series on the history of the Christian church.
THE LECTURE HALL WAS filled with a low murmur as the professor walked in and placed his soft leather briefcase on the lectern and opened it. He took out a small stack of blank paper and began passing it out to the freshman philosophy class. Students looked confused. When everyone had a sheet of paper, he simply said, “There is no God. All that I require from each of you is that you fill in each of the papers I’ve given you with three little words: GOD IS DEAD along with your signature. Assuming we reach a unanimous consensus, which I expect we will, I will be spared the tedious duty of slogging through dry and dusty arguments, and you will bypass the section of the course in which students have traditionally received their lowest grades of the semester” (1). Josh Wheaton, a Christian in the class, refuses to comply. He is given the opportunity to prove the antithesis to the entire classroom—that God is not dead. He presents his argument to the class in three 20-minute segments.
I was raised in a Christian home, and I accepted Christ at age thirteen. By fourteen, I wanted to be a pastor. But my path became muddied and rather complicated during forty years of active addiction. It was during this time that I suffered a “period of questioning.” My eventual return to the faith was protracted and included a period of skepticism. I can relate 100% to taking an evidentiary approach to challenging gospel truth. Lee Strobel took this tactic when he set out to disprove the existence of God, the reliability of Scripture, and the deity of Christ. His approach was rooted in decades of experience as an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
Biblical Basis for Apologetics
First Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Second Timothy 2:23-25 notes the Christian’s responsibility to “teach” about the gospel without becoming quarrelsome, and correcting others with gentleness. It’s been said that apologetics is evangelism in action—i.e, contextualizing the gospel. (Paul provides a critical explanation of preaching and evangelizing in 1 Cor. 15:14-19.) It is not uncommon to hear, “I was with you until you got to the stuff about Jesus.” In our pluralistic society it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus, and that Christ is the only way to heaven. To effectively share the reason for our faith, we need to expand our knowledge and comprehension of Scripture.
Paul writes in Ephesians 6:19-20 says, “…that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” This involves a complete transformation of the mind and the heart (see Rom. 12:2). Further to this, Romans 10:14-15 tells the believer that no one can choose Christ until they first learn of him—it the duty of all Christians to speak of the Good News. There seems to be a difference in today’s post-Christian society between “mission” and “being missional.” Apologetics is contextual; culture is fluid; evangelism must adapt but not compromise. The need to engage in apologetics is well established in Scripture. First Peter 3:15 is clear about our responsibility to “prepare to make a defense” of the gospel. Jesus told the disciples, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29, ESV). Luke wrote, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4) (italics mine).
The apostle John wrote, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Jude said, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Paul wrote, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine, and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Classical Apologetic Method
Groothuis writes, “It is possible for an atheist to be so impressed with the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection that he converts from atheism and believes in the resurrection all at once” (2). William L. Craig says of the Classical method, “It has been gratifying to me that what I grasped in a rough and superficial way has been confirmed by the recent work of religious epistemologists, notably Alvin Plantinga” (3). Paul says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20) (italics mine).
Classical apologetics establishes evidence for Christianity in a theistic context (4). Barth forcefully rejected natural theology because he took it to be in competition with the revelation in Scripture. He said God’s revelation is found only in the Christ of the Bible (5). Classical apologetics relies more on personally knowing Christianity to be true than on rational arguments and evidence. Barth argued that natural theology was a dangerous endeavor to engage in. I tend to agree. Man is fallen and unable to comprehend natural theology without misjudging what he sees. Sproul writes “…because if we attempt to learn about the living God from deductions drawn from nature, the probability that we will end up with a god made after our own image is greatly increased” (6). Further, I believe the context presented in Romans 1 indicates that we cannot draw a complete and distinct conclusion about God’s existence and power as efficacious enough to lead us to redemption.
Huffling believes classical apologetics starts with knowing reality and the absolute nature of truth. In an age of moral relativism, we are bound to encounter such arguments as, Well, that may be true for you, but it’s not for me. Further, classical apologetics deals with basic philosophical issues of metaphysics (the nature of reality) and epistemology (how we know reality). Modern classical apologists include R.C. Sproul, William Lane Craig, and Norman Geisler. Some adherents to this method believe man’s knowledge is in large part derivative, in reliance on the mind of God, and requiring God to make it accessible. The psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psa. 19:1-4a).
Evidential Apologetic Method
Habermas believes Evidential and Classical apologists share much of the same tasks as seen in Evidential apologetics (7). R.C. Sproul argues that natural theology must precede miracles, or the miracles will be without context and meaningless. I think it’s possible that a skeptic or atheist might settle on the truth about miracles without choosing a supreme being as their source. Much has been said regarding karma, fate, coincidence, mental power, and destiny sans God. Logically, miracles alone do not prove the existence of God. But, as Craig reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus has strong theological implications. He does say, however, that for as long as the existence of God is even possible, an event’s being caused by God cannot be ruled out. Evidential methodology postulates and develops historical evidence. This is clearly important when reporting on fulfillment of prophesy. He warns us that historical evidences must not be presented as brute facts that interpret themselves.
Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit provides us with interpretive wisdom. Accordingly, Isaiah stands on the proclamation that God’s words will never return to Him void (Isa. 55:10-11). Paul tells us all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But McDowell says the presentation of (or reliance on) evidence should never be a substitute for the Word of God (8). Instead, it must be paired with Scripture, which can serve to verify prophesy and historical accounts. Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
Cumulative Apologetic Method
Apologetics necessarily involves methodology, taxonomy, and epistemology. I take a “narrative” Cumulative approach when establishing the reason for my faith. Today’s post-Christian culture is predisposed to downplay or outright reject ontological or universal truth. Reason has a part in the cumulative approach, but this reason is rightly based on faith in God’s revelation. Indeed, reason itself establishes each conclusion as a building block, moving on to the next area of investigation. True “reason” cannot stand in judgment of God’s revelation. This is certainly the very essence of ontological truth—it stands alone. Specifically, ontology assumes the kinds of structures that exist, and only seeks to classify and explain them (taxonomy), whereas cumulative methodology stacks truth upon truth in search of a conclusion. God expects us to use our mind in comprehending Scripture. Mark 12:30 says, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Well-known Christian apologists Lee Strobel, Douglas Groothuis, and Sean McDowell use Cumulative methodology. Groothuis presents a “systematic” study of Christianity, which he identifies on the cover of his seminal text Christian Apologetics as “a comprehensive case for biblical faith.” He presents the theistic, ontological, cosmological, intelligent design, evidential, and moral arguments for God. In addition, he discusses the problem of religious pluralism and the need to defeat the argument that God cannot exist in a creation that features sickness, death, rape, murder, torture, and runaway natural disasters. This methodology is useful in answering accusations of atheists and skeptics regarding God and the existence of evil. (See my article from Sept. 20, 2020, Why Can’t God Stop Evil?)
Carr believes the constant barrage of information presented to us every day is causing our linear mind to be pushed aside, replacing it with a new kind of mind that tends to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better (9). We have no time (“in real life” or IRL as it were) to comprehend this deluge of data and draw a reasonable, logical conclusion as to its veracity or usefulness. It’s just there. This need for instant information was birthed during the 1980 hostage crisis in Iran, manifested as the ubiquitous “crawler” at the bottom of the TV screen—an endless stream that never goes away.
True to cumulative methodology, Lee Strobel conducted extensive research, interviewing leading scholars and authorities, using numerous “types” of proof—eyewitness evidence, documentary evidence, corroborating evidence, rebuttal evidence, scientific evidence. This is indeed an accurate description of cumulative investigation. I find this method most useful because it tends to examine all sources of information, all types of proof, and favors a logical presentation of the story of Christianity. It presents what is known in the courtroom as “a preponderance of evidence.” Cumulative apologetics assumes nothing. This should not be seen as a lack of faith; rather, it is a powerful and comprehensive approach to sharing the gospel through pre-evangelism. This methodology evaluates hyperbole, tradition, and storytelling. It seeks independent verification (through painstaking comparison) of the gospel by first defending the concept of theism. Because of the prevalence of skepticism and militant unbelief in today’s post-Christian culture, ontological argument alone is ill-advised for sharing the Christian faith. Moral relativism screams, That might be true for you but it’s not true for me.
The story of Christianity never changes, but the means by which it is shared must adapt in the face of militant rejection of theism in general and Christianity in particular. I became interested in Christian apologetics several years ago while taking the undergraduate class Worldviews at Colorado Christian University. Having watched the movie The Case for Christ, the name Lee Strobel was familiar to me. I can relate 100% to Strobel’s desire to take an evidentiary approach to challenging gospel truth. His presupposition regarding “God” blinded him regarding theological matters. His position as an investigative journalist in legal affairs, and his master’s level education in the law, predisposed his skepticism, but this became a powerful tool for allowing him to take a fair and balanced approach. His initial disbelief mirrors that of many individuals, especially during the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries where emphasis is on individualism, secularism, and moral relativism.
There is nothing wrong with taking an “investigative” or cumulative method approach to examining a concept. Strobel, however, identifies an important fly in the ointment. He wrote regarding his belief that there was no God, “And there was another lesson. One reason the evidence originally looked so convincing to me was because it fit my preconceptions at the time” (10) [italics mine]. Evidence is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation also can be subject to bias. As it’s been said many times, worldviews function somewhat like eyeglasses. In fact, Entwistle says, “…what we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see” (11).
Apologetics necessarily involves methodology, taxonomy, and epistemology—literally, orderly investigation, rooted in the theory of knowledge (especially with regard to method, validity, and scope), and classification of that knowledge. Frankly, this is unavoidable in part because of the apologia of 1 Peter 3:15. The intent of apologetics mirrors that of the Apology of Socrates before the court of Athens. In fact, Socratic logic is very effective for presenting arguments for one’s position on a given matter. The very nature of point/counterpoint serves to give credence to one conclusion over another, typically applying the logic of non-contradiction. We see this in rebuttal for the absurd assertion that there is no such thing as ultimate truth. To state that no one statement about truth can be true because there is no ontological truth cannot be a true statement. Christian apologetics assumes a positive orientation, arguing for the existence of God. It is from this platform that we must begin any conversation about Christianity.
(1) “Classroom Scene,” God’s Not Dead. Directed by Harold Cronk. Greg Jenkins Productions & Pure Flix Entertainment, 2014. Distributed by Pure Flix Entertainment, released March 21, 2014.
(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 531.
(3) William L. Craig, in Steven B. Cowan’s Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 21.
(4) Brian Huffling, (n.d.), “Apologetic Methods and a Case for Classical Apologetics.” Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College. URL: https://ses.edu/apologetic-methods-and-a-case-for-classical-apologetics/
(5) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: A Selection (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1961), 49-64.
(6) R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 73.
(7) Gary R. Habermas, “An Evidentialist’s Response,” in Steven B. Cowan’s Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000),, 42.
(8) Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 39.
(9) Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010), 6-7.
(10) Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 12.
(11) David Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 98.