“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
- Kurt Vonnegut
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us happy.” – Benjamin Franklin
Kurt Vonnegut and Benjamin Franklin (above) had different criteria for acknowledging the existence and character of God. Both of their well-known statements are tongue-in-cheek, and neither falls into the category of intellectual apologetics. Good thing because it seems people are giving up on Christian apologetics. I can’t blame them.
Donald Miller rightly complains about current apologetics and concludes “. . . the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.” Blogger T E Hanna follows up with 3 Reasons Why I Gave Up Christian Apologetics. The reasons are: 1. It is Rarely about Evangelism; 2. It justifies our Pride; and 3. It Fuels Negativity.
Before we drown the baby in the bathwater, I want to look at it from a different perspective. The idea of apologetics, of course, comes from the ancient Greek meaning “to speak in defense; give an answer.” Many interpret this as a confident recitation of the various arguments supporting Theism and Christianity and a refutation of arguments from opponents. Simple.
My Crash Course in Apologetics
I spent a number of years speaking in the former Soviet Union to educators, most of them life-long atheists. I would speak for an hour and then answer questions for another hour. Those trips remain a highlight of my life. However, they did not start off so well. On my first trip (Moscow) I thought I was smart enough and clever enough to convince the 750 educators attending the conference that God exists and Christianity is true. I knew the evidence well and all they had to do was listen and they would be convinced.
I was mistaken. I was not smart enough and too clever by half. The educators were on the edge of their seat the entire time; not mesmerized by my speaking but challenging every point I made. I felt physically beaten up after every exchange.
It took me a while to recognize that it wasn’t the content but the approach. I realized that I made the educators see me as an adversary. I made them defend themselves and their non-belief. I made them think of ways to counter and ridicule theistic arguments.
I looked at how the Apostle Paul confronted his multicultural world and came across his charge to the Christians in Colossae: Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:5-6).
A New Approach
After that first trip, I took a different approach and found myself in the thick of it but in a different way. I opened the conference inviting the educators (in Yaroslavl) to join me in a quest for understanding. I said to them, “I know that most of you wonder why so many thinking and well-educated people in the West believe in God and embrace Christianity.” I saw heads nodding. “This has not been your experience here in Russia so I was hoping you would allow me to explain to you why they believe. I think it is important for all of us to understand these important issues because they are not only at the heart of a person’s life but form the very soul of a society.” More heads nodded all over the auditorium. “After I explain we will have lots of time for you to ask any questions that you wish.”
I could see the people relax and sit back in their seats. Ready to listen, evaluate, and seek to understand.
The exchanges were lively, honest, and engaging. The conversations continued in the hallways, the dining halls and hotel rooms. One of my favorite stories is from Kiev. On the last day of the conference, a group of 13 teachers gave me a coin commemorating the independence of Ukraine from Russia. “We want to give this you to remember us,” they said. “Last night we changed our worldview.” They told me they had come to the conference as confirmed atheists and found themselves discussing and arguing about the topics of God and Christianity every evening. On their last night, they all found that they had come to embrace Christ. They all agreed to present the coin to me as a gift of appreciation.
If apologetics is merely dueling arguments about Christian beliefs then I agree it is usually fruitless in an evangelistic sense. The evidence for God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the confirmation of Christ’s deity and so on have greater value for Christians to shore up their commitment and understand their faith.
However, as I learned from my experience, there is value in the give and take of philosophical apologetics. Some people need to cross an intellectual bridge before they can consider the possibility that God exists and that Christ has uniquely revealed him to the world. I let the Russian educators help me build that bridge.
Another good example is C. S. Lewis. While Lewis had left his atheism and acknowledged that God possibly existed, he questioned how Christianity alone could be true. It was a long conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien on September 19, 1931 until 3 am that helped him see how the question was resolved. (You can read about it in Alistair McGrath’s wonderful biography of Lewis; C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, chapter six).
Many people have an emotional bridge to cross as well. The number one cry of the heart is, “Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow such widespread and indiscriminate suffering throughout the world?” Responding to this is apologetics at its most important and sensitive focus. Of course, every worldview struggles to explain this problem of evil but it festers in the wounded souls of those trying to make sense of a good God in a world wracked with suffering. [I will address this in my next post.]
Apologetics follows Peter’s direction to: “Always be prepared to give an answer (apologia) to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). The implication is clear: we are to be living in such a way that our lives scream “there is hope!” We give, serve, love, sacrifice, and even die for others because we know the One who died for us and what He has next for us. Then people will ask why we live this way. And we must be prepared to explain.
And they will probably need something other than music and beer.