Rethinking Apologetics

One of my fellow pastors calls me “Cult-Killing Kyle”—to my nausea-inducing chagrin—because I’m really passionate about apologetics. (But to be clear, not about killing people from cults. That’s bad.) Apologetics is the art and science of defending the Christian faith. The term comes from the word “defense” (in the Greek, apologia) used in 1 Peter 3:15, which 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.” Many Christians try to accomplish this through carefully crafted arguments. Their ultimate goal is tear down an opponent’s objections, hopefully concluding with a conversion. This mindset holds that if people were shown sufficient evidence for Christianity, then they could not help but believe.

No one's going to get this joke at all, but I still think it's funny.

No one’s going to get this joke at all, but I still think it’s funny.

But with the advent of postmodernism, people are no longer concerned with finding the truth but their truth. They see truth to be based on experience not evidence. The good thing is people are more open to hear opposing viewpoints. The problem is you can answer all their objections and they will walk away totally unfazed about their beliefs.

Being a pastor in Eugene, Oregon—a city fueled by the University of Oregon and known as the hippie capital of the Northwest—I get to interact with many who’ve taken postmodernism as far as it can go. One student told me with a straight face that morality does not exist and that Hitler and the Holocaust was a neutral matter. I then asked him, perhaps inappropriately, how he’d feel if his family was brutally murdered in front of him. Same answer. Morally neutral. I slowly walked away a little afraid.

How do you argue with someone like that? Perhaps there isn’t a way.

Through my many failures in apologetics I’ve become a firm believer that you cannot argue someone into heaven. I’m not saying throw out apologetics all together. I’m calling for us to rethink how we go about it. Of course, if someone has burning questions about the faith, they should be answered. But that is not sufficient. If someone is to be convinced of the Gospel, something deeper must be touched. You have to hit the heart.

Unbelief is not an intellectual problem but a heart problem (Psalm 14:1; Matthew 13:15). People don’t have trouble believing Christianity because they haven’t seen the evidence. They may say that, but that’s not what’s going on. They don’t want to believe. They willingly choose something else over God, exchanging the truth for a lie (Romans 1:18-25). Pharaoh had evidence in the form of vicious plagues, but he still hardened his heart (Exodus 8:19). There were some who saw the risen Christ and still didn’t believe it (Matthew 28:17).

When people convert to Christianity, it’s not because they finally saw all the proof. It’s because their heart was changed. Even C.S. Lewis wasn’t converted from his atheism because of rational arguments. He’d heard everything there was to hear in support of Christianity and was not convinced. It wasn’t until he was “surprised by joy”—the joy he realized he was meant to experience—that he reluctantly chose to follow Christ.

This doesn’t mean our faith is based on zero evidence. Christianity has mountains of evidence. Because people choose not to believe in God, they also choose not to see the evidence.

So, how do we share and defend the Gospel in this postmodern age? We must engage a person’s heart. What is their deepest desire? How are they trying to fulfill themselves? What is their deepest hurt? How are they seeking to save themselves?

A few years ago, a couple friends and myself were in a debate with two Mormon missionaries. I’d compiled a literal binder full of stuff to discredit everything, ranging from the Nephites all the way to the magic onesies. It didn’t work. After a few hours of getting nowhere, one of my friends asked them, “If you got hit by a bus today, do you know with absolute certainty if you’d go to heaven?” Both the missionaries hung their heads low, staring at the ground, searching for an answer. After about thirty seconds of silence, one of the men answered with a quivering voice, “I don’t know.” My friend had cut straight to their hearts—in a belief system where salvation is earned through good works, you can never know if you’ve done enough. What a heavy burden to carry.

One of the best ways to speak to another person’s heart is just by sharing yours. You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology. You know how you’ve been transformed. That story will resonate with people because their heart is longing for the same thing.

I once spent forty-five minutes arguing with an atheist on the UO campus, answering all his questions. After every reply instead of relenting, he kept bringing up more arguments. Answering one question would spawn three more. I had a guy with me I was training in ministry who hadn’t gone through any formal theological schooling. The atheist, tired of hearing my voice, turned to my friend and asked him to speak up. He nervously said, “I don’t know much about all this science and creation and stuff. But this is what I do know.” He then shared about his redemption out of a brutal life, about how Christ came crashing into his world and wrecked him. By the end of the story, tears were streaming down the atheist’s face. He longed for the same redemption.

The Apostle Peter is not wrong that you should be ready to defend the truth. Do it with “gentleness and respect,” declaring why you have hope—because Jesus gave you a new heart, a new life. Be honest, be open, and trust the Gospel to do the rest (Romans 1:16).

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