Category Archives: Applied Apologetics
It’s been a slow blog posting season for me. It’s been difficult to keep up with the coursework for my doctoral program, along with my varied other responsibilities. Thankfully, I have continued to write. Over at Truthxchange I have written two pieces on cultural apologetics, The Dawkin’s Diet, and Naming the Void.
My latest article, ‘The New Trans Challenge, has been posted on the website for truthxchange. Here is a summary of the content:
According to transhumanism, what is the chief problem with humanity? Their answer is ‘human finitude.’ Unlike the Bible, which anchors the fall of man in our moral rebellion against our glorious Creator, transhumanism sees human limitedness and physical frailty as the main problems to be overcome. Our determination of human normalcy (what is expected of the human experience in terms of physiological performance, cognitive abilities, and life-span) has not kept up with the modern technological and scientific advances. We need technologically, biologically, and ethically, to get with the program. To state the contrast again, whereas the Bible sees the problem as a broken relationship with God (a moral issue), transhumanism locates the problem with our limitedness or being (an ontological issue).
Unlike transhumanism, and in line with the radical approach of Paul himself, Christians see our physical breakdown as a sign, a signal of humanity’s estrangement from our Creator. Falleness, not finitude, is what needs transcending, and that will only come about by Spirit’s final comic revealing of the sons of God- those who belong to God by adoption through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.
It should go without saying that apologetics includes arguments for the truth of Christian claims. That much seems obvious. But that’s not what apologetics is about. When framed in the proper biblical context, apologetics really falls under the umbrella of evangelism. The goal is to bring the person to whom we speak to Jesus, to recognize his Lordship, to savor the benefits of the God’s love in Christ, and to get them excited about what God is doing in the world through his people.
Again, don’t get me wrong. Arguments are important. We construct arguments in order to show the logic behind Christian truth claims, and to demonstrate their coherence with other things we believe to be true. We construe arguments to persuade that obedience to Christ’s lordship actually benefits humanity. But any view that asserts that apologetics is primarily about winning arguments runs the danger of engaging in a philosophical parlor game, which usually winds up taking the form of endless philosophical distinctions, qualifications, and rebuttals. There’s also the proverbial danger of winning the abstract argument and losing the person. As John Frame has said (echoing Nicholas Wolterstorff), persuasion is person variable. He writes,
We are not seeking merely to validate statements but persuade people. Justification is a person-oriented activity. In trying to justify our beliefs, we often seek to persuade others and sometimes ourselves, but there is always some persuasion being attempted… If we ignore the element of persuasion or “convincingness,”…we may find ourselves constructing perfectly valid and sound “proofs” that are of no help to anyone. (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 151, 152)
Likewise, as nearly any work on interpersonal communication will inform you, often times a person’s words are not the main thing on which to set our focus. Of course in written communication (online dialogue etc.) the clarity and cogency of arguments are crucial. I don’t want to downplay that. But in interpersonal communication, reading the person is even more important than addressing the propositions. I suspect that is why Jesus not-too-infrequently seems to respond to questions and objections in way that both get to the heart of the matter, and seemingly avoid the actual words of his objector.
This is where intuition is vital. Do the person words strike you as angry? Fearful? Disappointed? For this reason, we should “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). If you don’t listen to the issue underneath the issue, we miss an opportunity to address the underlying roadblock. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).
All this means, yes, we must learn the facts. Yes, we should familiarize ourselves with the arguments. But when we bring them out, how we present them, and to what degree our apologetic should take the offense is left to the wisdom that comes with listening. Get curious. Ask questions. The more they speak, the better equipped you become (if you’re truly giving them the self-denying gift of listening) to hear their heart. The better equipped you are to speak the truth in love in a way that doesn’t treat the person like an abstract philosophical position. In listening you will grow ability, and desire to see the person with whom you are commenting Christianity as a real person with hopes, fears, misunderstandings, and yes, idols.
“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Prov. 16:23)
Let’s briefly address helpful pointers in apologetics. By this I don’t mean “helpful” in terms of arguments. I’m focusing on strategy, on making a persuasive case for Christ. So often apologists focus on getting our facts straight when in reality the issue is something else, and many times it’s something much more basic.
So here are my 5 things to look out for when commending Christianity to non-Christians.
Roadblock 1: Most non-Christians do not know the story of Scripture.
Before we can “defend” our position on Christianity, we need to make sure the person to whom we speak understands what we’re talking about. The sad thing is most America evangelicals don’t understand the Bible themselves (and various studies have demonstrated this- see here, and here). Now, this is not to say they don’t “get” Jesus. They do, but often not well enough to deal with tough objections to the faith. After all, Jesus isn’t the only person teaching us in Scripture. There’s Paul, John, Peter, James, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and on and on…
So, be prepared to do some explaining. The non-Christian may be hostile to something that’s not taught in Scripture. Help them out. This should lead to a strong sense of responsibility to the person you’re speaking to (God has, after all, placed them along your path). This also means we must cultivate the spiritual fruit of patience, since we there was a time when we didn’t “get” it either.
Roadblock 2: Unbelievers [normally] do not distinguish between Creation and the Fall.
As many thinkers have already noticed, the biblical plotline follows the themes of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. Some of the things we experience this side of the fall where not a part of the original created order God declared “good.” The obvious example of this is moral rebellion (sin) against God (i.e. sin). Al Wolters writes of this distinction in terms of structure and direction.
What’s worth noting is often what is considered natural by the non-Christian (ex: sexual lust), we may (and probably do) attribute to the Fall. We should bring to the attention of our non-Christian friends that not everything we find today is the way it ought to be. The Bible distinguishes between two senses in which something could be considered “natural.”
First, something may be “natural” if it was part of God’s original creation blueprint. In this sense, marriage, heterosexual monogamy, and loving obedience and submission to God and His word are all natural. The second usage of the term “natural” has the opposite meaning. According to this usage “natural” is contrasted with spiritual (or [Holy] Spirit-lead, cf. 1 Cor. 2:14, James 3:15). So, sexual deviation is perfectly “natural” in this sense, it “gels” well with our fallen condition. In some Bible versions, the term natural is more pointedly translated “carnal.” I think that gets my point across.
With these distinctions in mind we should be aware that unbelievers often blur or do not properly distinguish between Creation and Fall. So, when if they say, “what’s wrong with ____? After all, it’s natural.” We need to patiently point out that ____ (given it’s a sinful goal, motive, and/or standard) is not natural in the first sense (which is what Christian ethics is geared toward developing), but instead is natural in the second.
Roadblock 3: Arguing against Christianity based on what seems to be fitting for God, not on what Scripture actually says.
I’ve read a respectable amount of non-Christians literature against Christianity, both scholarly and at the popular level. A common problem I’ve noticed is many anti-theistic arguments fail to take into consideration the actual accounts of God’s nature and attributes in the Bible (see point 1), i.e. they argue against a no-frills type of God. Examples like this abound, “Can God created a rock so large he can’t lift?” From a biblical perspective, that’s a nonsense question that shouldn’t be tolerated as a serious problem for the Christian doctrine of God. It’s like asking if God can make a squared circle. God doesn’t “do” logical absurdities.
Here’s another example that ties together points 1 and 2: In most versions of the supposed problem of evil, unbelievers tend to
- Ignore —or are ignorant of— the biblical narrative and God’s purposes in using evil for his glory and our good, and
- Base their arguments on various assumptions on what a good God would never allow (babies to go hungry, etc.)
The point here? We need to fight the temptation to defend a conception of God not taught in Scripture. In my earlier series titled Prologue to Apologetics, I made the point that we defend no other God than the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, we should join hands to topple rival conceptions of God. So, if the “god” that our unbelieving friend is arguing against isn’t what we recognize as the biblical God (and don’t let their usage of the word “God” fool you), kindly respond that you’re not commending that god to them, and get back on track. Of course, this may make things harder to speak about (after all, Yahweh has allowed children to suffer, etc.), but our goal should be to winsomely recommend the truth, not merely what the non-Christian will accept.
Roadblock 4: Not distinguishing between the biblical message and the history of the Church.
This is an extremely common occurrence and a very important point. I can’t recall how many times when speaking to non-Christians the first objection I heard was, “But what about the crusades?” or some related question. We need to draw a distinction here. When we’re commending Jesus to someone, we’re not commending all the mistakes and blunders of the church as well. Please don’t confuse Christians with Jesus himself; he’s much better than us!
Now, are they connected questions? Very much so! The church is the community that claims to be people transformed by Jesus Himself who spiritually inhabits us through the Holy Spirit. We’re His “body” (cf. 1 Cor. 12). But none of this should detract from the plain fact that we’re claiming that the Bible records historical, space-time events. So, the wrongs inflicted by self-proclaimed Christians in the 1600’s (for instance) doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t live in Israel roughly from 3 BC to 30 AD any more than to say that because we discover that one of our elementary schools teachers was a pedophile, the mathematics that you learned from him or her is invalidated. That’s sloppy thinking.
Another important strength to making this distinction between “Bible-history” and Church history is that when we do we’re able to build moral bridges with non-Christians. We shouldn’t feel constrained to defend everything the church has done. The church is made up of broken, fallen people who need a Savior. Our sinful bend toward rebellion, and the need for spiritual transformation and renewal is the very reason the church exists! So, we don’t need to defend all aspects of the Crusades, the passivity of the German church during WWII, the abuse scandals in which the Roman Catholic priesthood finds itself, etc. Those are wrong, and should be acknowledged, by both saint and sinner, as wrong. Believe it or not, seeing that Christians aren’t “blind” to these moral blemishes within its own ranks may actually get you a hearing.
Roadblock 5: Assuming that biological/sociological explanations for an event or action makes theological explanations unnecessary.
Unbelieving scientists, both in the supposedly “hard,” as well as the “social” sciences, have often claimed that the supernatural worldview of Christianity is simply impossible. Many have claimed people of the ancient Near East were more prone to believe in supernatural beings and occurrences because they didn’t know any better. But, so it is thought, we can’t be too harsh on those overly superstitious people, they didn’t have the wealth of scientific knowledge on how the world runs as we modern folk do. Contemporary, especially western, Christians have no excuse though. We should know better and not place our hope in such fairytales.
These people may say that we have no need to believe that God causes the plants to grow, because now we know about the laws of photosynthesis. Or, you may have heard, “We no longer believe that morality comes from God, because now we are aware of just how much society and family shapes our beliefs about right and wrong, etc.”
But this misses the point, and it misses it big. It also vividly demonstrates how roadblock 1 (ignorance of the Bible’s storyline) applies to many of us Christians. Does God control and direct all things? Yes (Eph. 1:11). But does God normally do this apart from “normal” or “natural” means? No. This sheds light on the case of morality above. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our culture? Yes, we do. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our parents? Without a doubt. Do we become conscious of standards of morality from our peers, friends, and all those with whom we associate? Again, yes. But does conceding these points undermine the existence of a universal standard of ethical behavior? Not at all!
If the Bible is true, then it would seem God planned the normal, everyday means through which humans would learn standards of morality is through relationships in general and the family in particular. Now, of course, the word of God ultimately is given (among other reasons) to correct the faulty beliefs we have about ethics. But, the notion of right and wrong action, desires and motives, are dependent upon relationships. When I do something that I shouldn’t, something I ought not to do, I am breaking fellowship with someone, whether it’s my mother, father, the government, my “fellow man,” etc. If the universe is ultimately impersonal, I don’t owe it good behavior. Since it’s impersonal it can make no demands at all! We don’t owe allegiance to impersonal forces like gravitation, or to impersonal objects like rocks and sand. So, just as moral obligations depend on relationships with a person, in the same way ultimate ethical obligations are depend on a relationship with an ultimate Person. The horizontal (i.e. how we come to learn things) doesn’t cancel the vertical.
One more example, and I’ll wrap this up. Over the last two decades or so, there has been much discussion over the possible existence of a gay gene. Are people with a homosexual orientation genetically “wired” this way? Well, at this point the jury is still out (though the evidence isn’t exactly powerful). But, what if conclusive evidence could be shown that all homosexuals share this gene, genetically predisposing them to same-sex attraction? What would we do? Should we say the Bible is wrong because it clearly states that homosexuality violates God’s original desire for human sexuality? In a nutshell, we don’t have to change a bit. Al Mohler clarifies this point with skill,
Christians must be very careful not to claim that science can never prove a biological basis for sexual orientation. We can and must insist that no scientific finding can change the basic sinfulness of all homosexual behavior. The general trend of the research points to at least some biological factors behind sexual attraction, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This does not alter God’s moral verdict on homosexual sin (or heterosexual sin, for that matter), but it does hold some promise that a deeper knowledge of homosexuality and its cause will allow for more effective ministries to those who struggle with this particular pattern of temptation. If such knowledge should ever be discovered, we should embrace it and use it for the greater good of humanity and for the greater glory of God.
We would be called to a stronger recognition that these people who have this gene struggle with a particular temptation to sin that we do not all share. But this doesn’t make it any less a deviation from God’s design. Christians believe in the Fall and original sin (remember roadblock 2 above). We also believe that there is no part of who we are that hasn’t be touched by sin. To admit (if we had to) that a gay gene exists would simply be to acknowledge that the effects of the fall run deeper than we were initially aware. The horizontal doesn’t cancel the vertical!
So, if you’re talking with someone and this issue arises, stay alert and spot it. It can be tricky for sure, but without a working knowledge of these roadblocks an otherwise robust apologetic conversation can go sideways as you both speak past one another.
A doctrine I’ve repeatedly defended is that of biblical inerrancy. This doctrine affirms 2 things: First, that when all the facts are taken into consideration, and when the Bible is correctly interpreted, it neither 2) contradicts other known facts, or contradicts itself. Here I’d like t briefly discuss the second part of that definition- The Bible never contradicts itself. I’d like us to think through how we apply this conviction to tough cases.
For some time now the outspoken atheist, and Christian apostate, Dan Baker has issued his Easter Challenge. As he plainly state it, the challenges is as follows,
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.
A number of introductory remarks are needed in responding to Mr. Barker’s Easter Challenge. Several of these thoughts are regarding what logically constitutes a contradiction between the multiple resurrection accounts, while others touch on historical and literary concerns. My goal here is not to provide a detailed harmonization (others have provided that), but address the larger idea of forced harmonizations. Parameters must be acknowledged for any responsible Christian response to challenges like Barker’s.
As a single example of what Barker wants resolved, he asks:
What time did the women visit the tomb?
- Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1)
- Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV)
- Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV)
- John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)
It is clear that Mr. Barker’s challenge is intended to demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and irreconcilable. Such convolution, though not directly stated but certainly implied, is a strong argument against the historicity of the event itself. If the primary eyewitnesses cannot get their facts straight and do not produce a cohesive narrative the skeptic has ample reason to reject the central claim they are making.
Difficulties arise when certain assumptions (made by those untrained in biblical interpretation, historical reconstruction, and logic) are imposed upon the texts of the Bible.
Harmonization may not be possible. First, it may very well be the case that textual reconstruction is impossible. But this is not necessarily because of any failure of the biblical authors to presents the facts “as they really were,” but rather because we fail as interpreters to do just to the unique emphases of each Gospel as a literary whole. Each Gospel approaches the story of Jesus from a distinct angle, and we therefore should not automatically expect them to line up neatly like so many Lego blocks. Matthew constructs his Gospel with the aim of demonstrating Jesus as the long-promised messianic king, while John seeks to identify Jesus as the God of Israel come in the flesh. Each Gospel has its own goal and orders, including and excluding material based on the overall point they are seeking to make. We should not muffle these voices in the violent literary attempt to cram them into our preconceived procrustean bed. This is an inherent danger that potentially awaits anyone who seeks to harmonize the resurrection accounts (including those who affirm biblical inerrancy).
Beware the monster. Second, The Gospels were not written with the intent that they would be carved up, abstracted from their original focus, and spliced together like a literary Frankenstein’s Monster. So we ask, what exactly does Mr. Barker have in mind when he writes, “The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted” (emphasis his). If two Gospels says there was one angel at the empty tomb, and another says there was one, how should both these details be represented in the text, “There was/were one/two angels”? Does this kind of bare representation (without harmonization) encourage the uninitiated to claim, “See, there is a clear contradiction!” It would seem so.
Gaps and blanks. Last, following the lead of biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, we must make the distinction between literary gaps and blanks. “A gap is an intentional omission whereas a blank is an inconsequential omission” (see his An Old Testament Theology) Much of the information we would need to produce a successful harmonization is “blanked” because it was not reckoned to be essential to the narrative presented by the Gospel authors. In no way does this rule out the historicity of the accounts. It merely reminds us not to impose the foreign criteria of modern historiography on these ancient texts.
This last example raises another difficulty for Mr. Barker’s Challenge. If his goal in having people wrestle with this experiment in literary harmonization is to palpably demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and contradictory, an important question must be raised: What exactly is a contradiction?
A contradiction occurs whenever we affirm two logically irreconcilable concepts at the same time and in the same sense (A and not-A). Many objections to harmonization (and the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy behind it) are working off of a faulty and imprecise definition of contradiction.
Important for our purposes are the following interpretive points:
- Differences of perspective do not necessarily imply contradiction.
- Difficulties in the textual harmonization of multiple similar accounts (especially due to literary, linguistic, historical, or archeological ignorance) does not necessarily imply a contradiction
- Difficulties in harmonization do not logically mean or imply that the event to which they refer took place
To return to our earlier example of the angelic appearances at the empty tomb, we follow the lead of Norman Geisler:
Matthew does not say there was only one angel. John says there were two, and wherever there are two there is always one; it never fails! The critic has to add the word “only” to Matthew’s account in order to make it contradictory. But in this case, the problem is not with what the Bible actually says, but with what the critic adds to it. (Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992)
Matthew probably focuses on the one who spoke and “said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid’ “ (Matt. 28:5). John referred to how many angels they saw; “and she saw two angels” (John 20:12).3
As Geisler notes, the needed element to produce genuine contradiction must be provided by a hostile interpreted and does not come from the texts themselves.
This has been a brief crash course in thinking through some of the issue at handle when working through harmonization. The challenges to inspiration and inerrancy present us with the temptation to force harmonization to vindicate the Bible. We must work toward possible harmonization when possible, and admit ignorance and the need for further study when necessary. The best resources I can recommend for further study in this subject are Poythress’ Inerrancy and Worldview, and Inerrancy and the Gospels.
For more, see:
According to one definition, relativism is, “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” It starts with the observation that we do not have access to objective moral standards apart from our distinct cultural, historical, and geographical setting. After all, ethical guidelines are not learned, understood, or accepted in a vacuum; they are mediated by our consciousness, one that has been formed in a particular environment. Now, from these observations, here are two common interpretations of cultural relativism:
Because different cultures have differing ethical paradigms, all moral systems are social constructs; there aren’t any objective moral standards that apply to all people, at all times, and in all places.(moral atheism)
Regardless of whether moral absolutes exist, we cannot grasp them apart of what comes to us through our interpretive communities (cultures, sub-cultures, the circles in which we travel, etc.). (moral agnosticism)
The first statement is of a metaphysical nature, it’s a position on the nature of reality, what really exists. To know this, one would have to stand over and above all of reality to be able to authoritatively state that objective morality doesn’t exist. This assertion is what is referred to as a “universal negative,” one would have to be infinite to know that it is true.
The second proposition is much more modest; it is an epistemological statement in that it refers to our limits as finite thinkers. To say that we do not possess an unmediated view of universal behavioral guidelines, is not to say that they don’t exist. It just means that we must deal with what we have, and it implies that accessing a touchstone to govern what cultures are more “right” than others is inherently problematic (normally those that hold this position deny that God have revealed his character and will).
It is usually held that because we all are “trapped” by culturally received standards, we can’t and shouldn’t ever condemn the values and actions of other interpretive communities. This would prohibit us from judging the practices of the Nazis as “immoral”, since what we consider wrong due to our communal moral criteria was deemed justifiable according to theirs. If the thought of a whole country united in condoning the practice of pedophilia abhors us, we must realize that this is because our socially constructed ethical code labels such an activity an abomination. According to this model, who are we to impose our beliefs on people who don’t share them? After all, different cultures have different standards.
It essential to note that this conclusion (“Thou shalt not impose one’s standards on another”) does not logically follow from a position of cultural relativism. If no objective moral values exist, then how can one say that it is wrong for one group to judge others, or even to impose their beliefs on others? This moral imposition of an objective standard (“you ought not to judge others”) is in diametric opposition to their position; it is a complete contradiction. Contrary to this (culturally derived) notion of tolerance (on that is, it should be noted, smuggled in as an ethical absolute), cultural relativism provides the philosophical coherent basis for a group to say, “It is part of our belief system to impose our values on other groups, no one can say that we are objectively wrong to do so. Our cultural ethics are all that we have, so we will be obedient to them!”
Despite the common pairing of the popular notion of tolerance with relativism, cultural relativism can actually lead to obstinate close-mindedness.
Now that’s a problem.
In my last blog post I raised some problems with religious agnosticism. As a follow-up a friend asked how I would respond to the following:
How would you respond if the agnostic says, “Your objections don’t follow from my lack of belief. Just because I don’t think the evidence warrants belief in, say, unicorns, doesn’t mean I have an ‘anti-unicorn’ bias”?
My response is rather brief, but is still worth sharing for the purpose of clarification: Unicorns aren’t God, and God isn’t a unicorn.
Unicorns aren’t God. First, yes, of course. The agnostic certainly could say that. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s an adequate response to my objections. We need to remind this person that the metaphysical status of unicorns is not the same as the status of God as understood by Scripture. The religious claims called into question are the following:
- The biblical God has revealed himself to all people
- All people suppress their knowledge of God in unrighteousness
- The God of the Bible creates, upholds, and sustains all things
- The God of the Bible is only rational foundation of being, and his revelation (both in nature and in his written word the Bible) is the only rational foundation for knowledge.
These are very specific claims. Whether or not unicorns exist does not affect the very preconditions of intelligibility. To live one’s life as it these claims aren’t true is, biblically speaking, to deny these truth claims. To deny these truth claims is anti-Christian.
God isn’t a unicorn. Evidence for God is quite different from evidence for unicorns. The Christian God cannot be treated as simply another fact. Van Til writes:
We cannot prove the existence of beams underneath a floor if by proof we mean that they must be ascertainable in the way that we can see the chairs and tables of the room. But the very idea of a floor as the support of tables and chairs requires the idea of beams that are underneath. But there would be no floor if no beams were underneath. Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own accomplishments. (see his The Defense of the Faith)
The appropriate method of proof must depend on the nature of the thing being proved. God (“a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it ) cannot be discovered like so many cookies in a pantry….or unicorns in an enchanted forest.
You’ve likely experienced this. You speak to someone and it becomes apparent that you’re a Christian and they are not. Instantly you’re viewed as strange and maybe even backwoods in light of their enlightened secularism. Now, they probably won’t put themselves out there and say, “I don’t believe in God,” or “God doesn’t exist.” They live as atheists, but they prefer to identify as agnostics.
What is agnosticism? An agnostic is one who claims they don’t know about God’s existence, or the truth of any religious claims, whether true or false. Agnosticism can come with a religious veneer (“spiritual but not religious”), but is usually tied pretty close to a secularist and naturalistic worldview. For this type of person it is self-evident that religious claims, and usually specifically Christian claims, are absurd and Christians hold to magical or childish views of the universe. Christians can often feel frustrated speaking to folks like this because it is always they who are on the defense. The agnostic isn’t claiming anything, so it is believed. In fact their views are just natural. It’s simply what any rational person should hold.
The truth is agnosticism is in fact a view of the universe. It does reflect a worldview, and that worldview, whatever its stripe, is anti-Christian and should be shown to be so. But there are some important tactics we should remember when engaging these kind of agnostics. First, we ask clarifying questions, questions that agnostic may not have thought of themselves.
Ask, “What kind of agnostic are you?” There are essentially two kinds of agnostics, hard and soft. Hard agnostics believe that we cannot know religious truths. It is not within the ability of man to pierce through the veil of metaphysics. This is clarified when contrasting them with soft agnostics. A soft agnostic does not claim we cannot truth religious truths, only that they themselves have not come to know religious or metaphysical truths. Hard agnosticism is an epistemological claim about what is true for everyone. Soft agnosticism is merely a statement of where the person is at that moment.
Make the agnostic aware of this distinction. This distinction gets you out of the hot seat, stuck defensively answering all questions, turning the tables on any potential secularist superiority complex. Depending on their answer, we can move the conversation in an apologetic direction.
Hard agnostics. Hard agnostics are actually committed to truths about the nature of reality. They are married to views, whether self-consciously or not, of what is possible and impossible. For them, the religious cannot be known to be true, so whatever reality is like, we cannot know if God exists, whether he is Trinitarian, whether man is morally opposed to him, etc. etc. But this is in fact a denial that God is as the Bible portrays him. The Bible depicts God as a speaking God, a God who isn’t hidden. The Biblical God is one who is revealed in every fact of creation. To deny this by a universal appeal to mystery or ignorance does not change the fact that it is an anti-Christian bias.
To draw out the hard agnostic, ask questions. What about our knowledge makes them believe that we simply cannot know religious or metaphysical truths? In answering your questions, you will help draw out their actual beliefs. Don’t necessarily call them on their consistency (starting with an appeal to ignorance at first, only to divulge their beliefs upon questioning), at least not yet. If you’ve got them talking this is good enough.
Soft agnostics. Again, ask a question: When you admit ignorance about religious truth claims, are you open to seeking the truth? Would you say there’s a chance Christianity is in fact true, even if you don’t have certainty just yet? Again, draw them out. Hostility or aggression is a surefire way to kill dialogue. Ask them: When it comes to religious claims, you say you don’t know. Would you like to know?
On the other half, a person might self-identify as a soft agnostic, only to be revealed as a hard agnostic upon questioning. Again, ask questions. Once you shift the burden of proof back on to the agnostic by asking about the hard/soft agnostic question, you have placed them in the position they so often what you to be: The hot seat.
Always keep in mind that you aren’t the only one who needs to account for what you believe.
Both in my personal life and related to apologetics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of hearing and listening to people. A mark of God-pleasing thinking is our willingness to cultivate Christian listening. This means non-aggressively hearing them and even welcoming their potential insights. Here I’d like to suggest some practical steps toward better listening. But first, unpack the Christian in Christian listening.
Why Christian Listening?
I call this the art of Christian listening for two reasons.
First, it is an art. Listening is a skill to be developed because it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, since we’re sinful creatures with the natural tendency toward intellectual and moral laziness, we’ll most likely struggle with this for the rest of our lives. That’s simply to say that listening well is part of our sanctification.
But there’s good news. The struggle can get easier. As we make the effort to apply ourselves in listening, we develop an internal sense of what we’re doing— even when we’re not conscious of it. This internalization of a skill is something with which artists are quite familiar. I’ve been cartooning since I was a child, and I couldn’t tell you what in the world I’m doing when I draw…I just draw. Shapes, lines, shadow, etc. These things are no second nature to me because I’ve developed a discipline by drawing for many, many years.
Secondly, this kind of listening is Christian because it is uniquely undergirded and supported by theological resources unique to the Christian worldview.
Here are some practical tips for becoming a better listener, supported by scripture. Nearly everyone will probably agree with these general guidelines, but only the Christian worldview provides us with a consistent theological foundation for these attitudes and actions. But before we jump into the positive, let’s address a major road block for Christian/ Non-Christian communication.
A Big Listening “Don’t”
A typical knee-jerk of many Christians is to dismiss all non-Christian thought as foolishness. This tendency usually stems from the biblical teaching (especially clear in 1 Cor. 1) that there’s a radical (from the Latin radix, meaning root) opposition between the deepest heart commitments of Christians and those of non-Christians. In principle, an absolute antithesis exists between the Christian worldview and all others. So, I can sympathize with the impulse behind the “knee-jerk reactions.” Christians take biblical passages such as 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 seriously.
And this is true… but it’s not the whole story.
Reactionary positions do not reflect a robust understanding of God’s “common grace.” I plan on posting something about this very soon but for now we note that doctrine of common grace teaches us that though all people are sinners, God nevertheless prevents sin from making us as bad (or stupid) as we could be. Tim Keller nicely summarizes it by saying, “Because unbelievers are created in the image of God, they are far better than their wrong views should make them. But, Christians, because they are sinners, are far worse than their right views should make them.”
Non-Christians do utter truths, and frequently God grants them greater insights into his world than his children. It simply isn’t biblical to reject genuine insights from unbelievers. Nor is it good reasoning (it’s called the genetic fallacy, i.e. dismissing a view because of its origin). Arguments must be accepted or rejected based on their own merits, not their source. Referring to the insights, gifts, and skills that God graciously bestows upon unbelievers, John Calvin said:
If the Lord willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and the other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.
Christian charity, sound scholarship, and winsome apologetics demand we closely and patiently evaluate non-Christian thought, both for the purposes of exposing its departure from Christ-centered principles as well as to gather from the Spirit’s gift of common grace.
So please, don’t just disagree with someone, look for their strong points, things you can agree with and build on. If you hear that Person X is wrong about something, look it up, listen to them, and even read some of their writing.
Show respect. The purpose of evangelism, and apologetics, and dialogue with others is not to have a shouting match. We all grant that much (I hope!). But too often apologists can come off as smug, not granting the unbeliever a fair hearing. But that very unbeliever is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), imbued with dignity and honor. Also, 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to be ready to not only to defend the faith, but also to be ready to do so with “gentleness and respect.” God commands that we respect even those that may potentially harm us (cf. vs. 14, 17). We do this to in order to “[keep] a clear conscience” that testifies to God’s wisdom (v. 16).
Sympathetically listen to other points of view. We’ve heard the criticism: Christian truth-claims breed dogmatism and arrogance. Is this true? Well, for some it certainly can be. Here’s another truth claim: arrogance does not grow in the soil of the genuine gospel of Christ. Arrogance grows in the absence of the gospel! According to the biblical vision of divine grace teaches us we’re not delivered because we’re wiser, more spiritual, or more ethical than others. We are Christians solely by grace, and not by our superior ethical life or intellect, we should expect others to frequently see things and know things we do not.
Follow the other person’s argument. Since we’re created in the image of God, we are rational beings. We have an uneasy relationship with the idea of believing things willy-nilly, devoid of some kind of reason. We need some rationale, some reason for committing ourselves to a worldview, cause, or ideology. In a real-life apologetic discussion do pay close attention to the other person’s rationale for their beliefs. Think through their major claims, minor claims, throw-away arguments (arguments that only “preach to the choir”), evidence, etc. Often others have not thought through these issues self-consciously. It’s our job to help them do so.
Assess claims. Now that you’ve heard and listened carefully to their points, assess them. Are they true? Are they false? Are they completely false, or is there some good to be built upon? What are the underlying assumptions of what they’re saying?
Ask questions. Doing this will both clear up anything that’s still fuzzy in your mind about what they said, as well as create an opportunity for the person you’re speaking to refine their beliefs in light of your questions and objections. All throughout the gospels, Jesus asks insightful questions both to make points and to clarify the positions held by others. We’d do well to follow His example.
When necessary, admit ignorance. It’s happened to all who try to seriously provide answers to skeptics. And it’s one of the hardest things an apologist can do (akin to a professional scholar saying, “I was wrong.”). These three words are difficult, but often times necessary, to say. Here they are: I don’t know.
These three simple words can signal either defeat or something else. I propose that ending a conversation at this point isn’t the death of apologetics, but can in fact be the birth of long term dialogue with a non-Christian friend. Here are a common of reasons that I think this is the case.
First, admitting ignorance reinforces a spirit of dialogue, rather than confrontation. After all, we aren’t gurus. We aren’t the source of truth, we only point the way. And often times, we need others to help us get there as well. Second, our knowledge of God, Scripture, etc., should be a natural development in the process of our sanctification. As we grow in our love and devotion toward God, so our knowledge of him and his ways will also grow. This growth in grace will not end in this lifetime, so neither is the process of learning. Lastly, admitting ignorance may serve to honor the fact that Christianity is lived by faith (a living trust in a personal God). Our trust in God isn’t an achievement unlocked only after solving all “riddles” and questions. The moment we reduce “true” faith to intellectual sophistication, we’ve sold the farm to the Gnostics (and that’s bad news).
We must reject truth divorced from charity. And we should embrace faith —trust in God’s word— working through love—taking the time to understand what others are saying (Gal. 5:6).
Several Days ago I hopped on to social media and posted the following to Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”:
This prompted a discussion with a gentleman I will refer to as “Nye Defender.” What resulted is what I believe is a helpful example of pro-life apologetics in action. My statements will appear in bold, when ND will appear in italics.
Nye Defender: Your point?
JT: I will not assume,, that you necessarily know of the recent video Mr. Nye posted claiming that those who claim that human life begins at conception “literally” have no idea what they are scientifically claiming. Placed in that context, the point above is clear. That human life begins at conception is an indisputable scientific and embryological fact. I have many such statements from a number of embryology textbooks to supplement this one if you are interested.
ND: Yes. I am quite aware of the video. He never said that am embryo was not the start of a human being. However, differentiating between the different stages of development is important. An embryo is a potential human being, but it is not yet one. These statements from these doctors do not refute anything Nye said in the video.
JT: An embryo is not a thing, it is a stage of development in the life of a thing, just as a toddler or teenager is not a thing but a stage of development. What is the thing? It is a human being. An embryo never “becomes” a human being. It is a human being at every level of development. It looks and acts just as any and every human being does at that stage. Also, please note that the quote I provided does address Nye’s claim in that fertilization begins a “human life,” not a potential human life.
ND: I never said it was a thing. An embryo is not a human being. It could not survive outside of the womb. This is why this is such a debate. There is much debate within the medical community and society as to what constitutes a human being. I support the idea that a human being does not exist until the stage of development where it could survive outside of the womb, generally the 3rd trimester. Until then, it is in various stages of development but is not fully a human being yet.
JT: Thank you for engaging in healthy discussion. It’s much more genuine, and less full of strawmen, than the words of Mr. Nye himself. You don’t strike me as an advocate of the “all pro-lifers are idiots” approach.
You touched upon a really important point when you write, “much debate within the medical community and society as to what constitutes a human being.” And your words highlight an important truth: the anthropological question of “What is a human?” is not a scientific question. It is in fact a philosophical/theological questions that presupposes a number of interrelated worldview questions. But that’s not to avoid the harder biological and scientific facts, but it is to acknowledge that other issues are at play.
And this is one of the things that I believe raises difficulties for your position. You stated, “I support the idea that a human being does not exist until the stage of development where it could survive outside of the womb, generally the 3rd trimester.” First, thank you for putting your cards on the table and making a concrete claim. It’s a breath of fresh air, especially compared to many abortion advocates who deny than human life begins at conception but refuse to say when it *does* start. Here is where I think the problem lies: defining human life in terms of viability 1) confuses biology with technology, and 2) proves too much.
I say that because viability, the ability for the fetus to survive outside of the mother’s body, is completely relative to technological advances in medicine. So the age of viability by that standard today would be different than the age of viability 30 years ago, and that would be different than 100 years before that, and therefore the answer to the question What is a human? Would keep changing. To make this point clear, it’s now strongly being argued that “Premature Babies May Survive at 22 Weeks if Treated” (see article attached).
[Incidently, this would also have the implication that you should considering opposing not only third trimester abortions, but also those in the second trimester (which lasts from week 13 to week 27).]
Another difficulty I would suggest you consider is that the viability of definition of human life proves too much. Why is that? Because newborn infants also cannot survive outside of the womb apart from outside sustenance. Would we be willing to deny their personhood based on that as well? If unborn babies inside the womb have no moral or legal standing based its ability to “survive” on their own outside of the womb, then neither should newborns babies outside of the womb.
My assumption is that you are *not* an advocate for infanticide.
ND: I don’t oppose anything when it is medically prudent for either the mother or the potential child. I support the right to choose. I do not believe the government, nor anyone else, has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. It should be up to her, the potential father (in some cases), and the doctor(s). I do not have the right to make a woman carry to term and give birth. The government does not have that right either. I do not advocate for people to undergo these procedures, but to have the right to make the decision that is best for them once presented with all necessary information.
JT: Just wanting to make sure I’m understanding you: Are you saying that you do not oppose infanticide?
ND: I did not say that. I did not even address that point because it is not relevant to the conversation. You are talking about killing a child who has been born already. That is a different argument from the discussion on abortion.
JT: Please help me understand the relevant moral distinction.
ND: We are not talking about the morals, because that is an entirely different debate. You asked about infanticide. It cannot be infanticide until the child is born. So, obviously I do not support the killing for a baby who has already been born. Once born, we should do everything we can to ensure its survival and health.
Again, I do not advocate for abortion. I support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. I support her right to make an informed decision for her own physical and mental health and that of her potential child. That is all I advocate for. It is not my place, your place, or anyone else’s, to make those decisions for someone else.
JT: Mr. _____ I’m not sure I understand what you mean to say when you say that the moral question of abortion is “an entirely different debate.” Civil laws are always a legislation of a moral perspective. Theft is illegal because it is deemed morally wrong, as is perjury, arson, and a host of illegal activities. And this is why, at the heart of the abortion debate is a moral issue. The true question is not one of “what a woman can or cannot do with her body.” That’s important, but handling that question is entirely dependent on another question, the primary question: What is the unborn? If the unborn is a human being, there is no moral justification for taking its life. If the unborn is not a human being, then no moral justification is necessary for abortion– just as there is no moral debate over the status of having one’s tooth pulled.
Much of what you have written already assumes your own position without defending it, thus begging the question. A woman is only free to do with her own body what she pleases if it is not used to bring harm to others. We must agree on this point. This is why it is illegal to strap a bomb on to our own bodies and walk into a crowded movie theater. Why? Because we would be using our bodies to harm others. I have provided you with biological evidence that what is growing in a mother’s womb is not her own body.
Abortion takes place within a woman’s body, not to a woman’s body, per se. The abortion happens to the body of the unborn as it is either burned with a saline solution, or ripped apart piece by piece out of the mother’s body. Unless we accept the absurd conclusion that each mother possesses 2 unique sets of DNA and generic make-up, we must acknowledge that the unborn is a unique, living, and distinct human person from the mother. If this is true, than the logic of the pro-life argument is valid. Again, a woman should have the (ethical) right to determine what is right for her own body in conjunction with her own doctor if and only if her body is not used to harm another person. If it is used in that way, she does not have the moral “right” to use it in that way.
Again, when you say “I support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body,” the burden of proof falls on you to disprove the biological distinction between the mother and the unborn. Simply saying that it’s her body does not establish the claim.
Please reconsider the following argument. If the premises are true, the conclusion necessarily must be true. 1) Murder is morally wrong, 2) abortion is murder), 3) Therefore abortion is morally wrong.
The first premise is just about universally agreed upon by religious and non-religious people (here we must make the moral distinction between murder and killing). The second premise is true if the abortion is the intentional destruction of a living and biologically distinct human being (which is supported by the evidence provided in the link attached). If that is the case, premise 3 must follow, “Therefore abortion is morally wrong.”
ND: None of your initial points connected to the morality. If you want to discuss that, then that should be the focus. Everything until now has been about the definitions and the development process. I do not consider abortion to be murder, especially in the first trimester when the embryo or fetus would never be able to survive on its own anyways. You are using the concept of post hoc, ergo propter hoc to make a connection between things that are not definitively connected. Abortion is not defined as murder, therefore you cannot say it is morally wrong. I am no longer participating in this discussion because you will never see my view and I will never agree with your view either. Suffice it to say, as I have said repeatedly now, neither you nor the government gets to force a woman to carry an unwanted child (especially in the case of a rape or incest) to term and then to give birth to that child.
JT: The moral and medical are bound together. As I’ve tried to communicate (whether successfully or unsuccessfully), if premise 2 is established (that abortion is the destruction of a biologically distinct human person), and premise 1 is accepted (a nearly universal moral axiom that I didn’t bother to defend), the conclusion follows.
You have emphasized that you do not believe that abortion is murder “when the embryo or fetus would never be able to survive on its own.” This is the “viability” argument that I addressed earlier in our discussion. Would you please consider responding to what I said there? Likewise, I fail to see how I committed the “post hoc” fallacy. You failed to even explain how this was committed (perhaps believing that it is self-evident?) Whether it is self-evident I will leave to others to decide.
Rape and incest are horrible, abominable crimes (though, in statistically proven data they make up approx. 1% of abortion cases), and violators should be prosecuted harshly. Nevertheless those horrible actions wherein the mother is violated should not be used to justify further violence to another innocent party. What is needed is love for the victim, love that is concretely shown in support, encouragement, and finances. Pro-lifers must “put their money where their mouth is.” But there is no widespread lack of this considering there are far more crisis pregnancy centers and advocacy groups than there are abortion clinics.
In the name of intellectual honesty, I hope you will acknowledge to yourself that you have not defended, supported, or argued in favor of your position. You have merely asserted it and assumed it. I do pray that perhaps you will at least reread what I’ve written and consider the arguments, even if you are not inclined to agree.
Thank you for engaging in a civil discussion.
ND: I will reread what you have written. However, under no circumstance do I believe that a woman should be forced to carry a child . That would be cruel to the woman, especially in the case of rape or incest. It is irrelevant that those cases only make up a small portion of abortions. The fact is that they cases do exist.
I do not understand how someone who was not a willing participant in the act of conception should be forced to spend the next 9 months of her life with the constant reminder of that event and putting her body through the pregnancy. How is that right? I just do not understand that stance. I suppose I never will because I cannot put myself in the place of a woman and understand what she is going through at that point. I will also never understand how anyone can believe that the government should have a right to tell a woman that she should have to carry a child that is not wanted. I just don’t get it. Whether you believe abortion is right or wrong, the fact is that no one should be making that decision for another person.
JT: And yet, laws in fact do, all the time and always, “tell people what to do.” But you haven’t responded to this. As I said, a woman’s rape is a horrible, demonic act of violation. But that act does not change the medical fact that her “desire” for the child (or lack thereof) does not make the unborn less human. If a mother of a newborn that resulted from rape decides to kill the baby because it reminds her of her violation, would that be permissible? No, it wouldn’t, and I’m confident most people would say because the baby is a human being. And I would agree- We shouldn’t kill humans. And so, as I noted earlier, the one essential question is this: Is the unborn a human?
All the other questions are important in various ways, but they can only be addressed and answered rightly if we get to the heart of that one central question.
Ok, so this can barely be counted as a meme. But it’s “meme enough” to warrant a response. Here we have a world-famous comedian defining the very essence of religion. Think about that for a moment. George Carlin is about to reveal something of the heart of what a religion is a does. Here is his evaluation:
Religion is like a pair of shoes… find one that works for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.
Taking a Closer Look. Like a meme, this has lots of meaning packed into a short quip. So, as we’ve done with the last two memes we’ve evaluated, let’s dissect this claim into its constituent parts
- Leading analogy: “Religion is like a pair of shoes…”
- Command based on pragmatic definition of religion: “…find one that works for you…”
- Command based on ethical evaluation: “…don’t make me wear your shoes.”
Each phrase helps to construct the implicit argument of this meme. First, there’s the analogy, religion is like a pair of shoes. That is to say, Carlin seems to believe that religion is like an interchangeable accessory. It’s not essential to our existence—the way a foot, or some essential part of the body itself is. But this analogy is made clearer in the second phrase. Carlin tells his listener to do something, so it’s a command: Find one that works for you. Here’s the logic. Since religion is like an interchangeable accessory, find one that fits your style. This approach to religion is built on a pragmatic definition of religion. On this view, religion isn’t about understanding the true nature of reality and properly aligning oneself with it. The pragmatic approach to religion says that the right religion for you is the one that works for you. Notice what I wrote twice there. The operative phrase in the pragmatic approach is “for you.” Of course, this naturally entails religious relativism.
The last part of these meme is the most problematic. We’ll look at it closer below, but for now we’ll examine it closer. Here Carlin closes (or, at least the meme does) with an ethical command: Don’t push your religion! Again, here’s the logic restated in the language I’ve been using throughout this discussion.
- Statement of the essence of religion: Religion is a non-essential accessory to adorn individual preference
- Religious relativism stated: Individual preferences are not rooted in objective reality and differ from person to person
- Ethical assertion based on religious relativism. Therefore, it is wrong to force a person to abandon their personal preferences regarding a matter that is essentially an accessory to adorn individuality (religion)
Response. Rarely does a relativist explicitly condemn another position, not if they want to be consistent. You see once you start telling people what to do and what to believe you’ve smuggled ethical and religious absolutes back into the discussion. Whenever you say “you ought to…” or “You ought not to …” you are assuming a standard. If it’s a relative standard the person isn’t obligated to change their behavior in conformity to it. If it is an absolute ethic standard for religious belief it’s self-refuting.
But there’s something else that needs to be pointed out. Normally when someone says something like this the goal is to shame the person who 1) believes passionately, and 2) commends their faith to others. It should go without saying that these guns are normally pointed at religiously conservative Christians. How dare the small-minded Christian push their religion on someone else? So the reasoning of this meme is employed to take the moral high ground and promote (postmodern) tolerance. But there’s a crippling problem here: Commenting faith in Jesus to others (evangelism) is part of the Christian faith (see. Matt. 28). Evangelism is not a tangential aspect of Christian practice. For those that believe that Jesus is God himself and the master of their lives, evangelism is a command that shapes their actions. What Carlin is really saying is Christians ought not to practice their religion. You can be a Christian so long as you don’t believe (that what Jesus says directs your life) and behave (go and tell others about him) as a Christian.
And what does this boil down to? Carlin does the very thing he tells others not to do. He is “imposing” his own secular worldview on others. He’s cramming our feet into his shoes.
This meme raises an interesting point: Is a punishment of eternal duration for a crime of finite length just? Of course, as noted before, memes make their points by sarcasm and cheekiness. But it’s a great question. In fact, I chose this meme because it’s so helpful as a springboard to other related and deeper issues.
The challenge. First, let’s think about the challenge embedded in this meme. Eternal punishment for crimes of a finite length: Doesn’t that just strike you as wrong? It’s fairly transparent that the meme’s creator is claiming radically irresponsible sentencing on the part of the biblical God. If an infinite punishment for a finite crime strikes us—fractured and fallible mortals that we are— as overwhelming disproportionate, why can’t God see that? Or, better stated (and this is likely the true sentiment behind the charge of disproportionality), should we really take seriously the threats of a God created by an ancient war-mongering people? After all, so it is believed, their misshapen logic of punishment is so transparent to us enlightened modern people.
The implicit logic of our meme builds from the true insight that any claim that implies an absurdity is itself an absurdity. To put things a little more formally:
- X implies Y
- Y is false
- Therefore X is false
Now let’s plug in the premises.
- The Christian doctrine of eternal punishment implies an infinite punishment for finite crimes
- Infinite punishment for finite crimes is absurd
- Therefore, the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment is absurd
Probing a bit deeper. The meme itself (due to its brevity) does not specify whether eternal judgment is immoral or immoral-and-therefore-impossible. It’s likely that for most people who raise this kind of objection it’s the latter; this “absurd” logic renders the biblical warning of eternal judgment immoral and therefore can legitimately be ignored. Of course, that doesn’t follow logically. Even if Christians were to concede that the logic of “eternal punishment for finite crimes” were twisted and immoral (which we do not), that in itself doesn’t mean that God isn’t going to apply that standard come Judgment Day. Immoral things happen all the time and wishing they wouldn’t cannot change that sad fact. The meme’s creator (and those that share it’s objection) likely wouldn’t quite put things that way, but we need to help them see that this is where their assumptions take them.
The scales of judgment. In truth, we cannot address the fairness of the biblical logic of judgment from the position of a hostile worldview. And that’s because the biblical logic really makes sense only from within the larger structure and story it’s telling. To paraphrase John Piper, God is the only being for whom self-centeredness is not idolatry. To quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” God is worthy of our devotion, allegiance, and love. Why? Because he is the fullness for which we were created. Our ultimate joy is found in union with him and not in lesser (though good) things like family, friendships, careers, etc.
So what this mean for our meme? The punishment must fit the crime. The crime’s duration is irrelevant. It is the severity of the crime that establishes the severity of the punishment. We commit our sin during a finite time, but it is of infinite severity. John Piper put this so well:
What is sin? It is the glory of God not honored. The holiness of God not reverenced. The greatness of God not admired. The power of God not praised. The truth of God not sought. The wisdom of God not esteemed. The beauty of God not treasured. The goodness of God not savored. The faithfulness of God not trusted. The commandments of God not obeyed. The justice of God not respected. The wrath of God not feared. The grace of God not cherished. The presence of God not prized. The person of God not loved. That is sin.
As stated above, this duration of the crime committed makes no difference in evaluating the crime’s severity. As a counterexample: It could easily take less than a few minutes for an evil despot with nuclear capabilities to walk down the hall to his office and order a nuclear strike against innocent citizens of another nation. Here the time to accomplish his goal would be quite short, but the fallout (both literal and moral) would be enormous.
God’s judgment is just. The punishment does fit the crime. But we must trust his assessment of the crime and not our own. Naturally this perspective is strange and offensive to non-Christians. This change in perspective requires more than a little rearranging; it requires conversion—a new heart.
In this meme we have what appears to be an Eskimo fishing while speaking to an unseen Christian priest/missionary. The Eskimo asks whether those who are ignorant of God’s righteous character and our moral rebellion against him would, in light of that very ignorance, be held accountable. The priest/missionary replies “No, not if you did not know.” The Eskimo’s response is the key to understanding the single point of the meme, “Then why did you tell me?” According to the rationale of the meme’s creator, Christians appear to hold to 3 contradictory beliefs: a) Those who reject the message of sin and the forgiveness provided by the cross-work of Jesus are eternally damned (i.e. go to hell), b) it is the Christian’s job to tell as many people as possible the message of sin and the forgiveness provided by the cross-work of Jesus. Finally, c) Christians are to spread this message because they love their fellow man. Can you grasp why this would be seen as a problem? If not, I’ll expand those 3 points a bit to clarify:
- Ignorance of the gospel message preserves a person from being held accountable for sin (i.e. they will not be judged for rejecting a message they’ve never heard of)
- Believing the gospel and placing one’s personal faith in Jesus is required to be saved from the coming wrath of God.
- It is better for people to be saved from the coming wrath of God than to experience it.
- Christians claim to love people when they spread the gospel of Jesus (evangelize).
- Rejection of this gospel of Jesus will—upon its rejection— lead these ignorant/innocent people to experience the coming wrath of God.
- Therefore, the act that Christians claim to do out of love (evangelize) is the very act that condemns people who would have been better off if Christians simply left them alone.
As you can now see, the whole dilemma is rooted in point 1, and it’s this point that I think Christians should reject. People are not condemned to hell because they reject the gospel, per se. They are not judged for what they do not know. Instead, they are judged for what they do know, and according to Paul they know quite a lot. According to Romans 1:18-32, all people, since they are created in the image of God and live in God’s created world, know that (the true) God exists, that he is unlike his creation, that he expects us to live righteously, and that all who violate his moral law are rightly deserving of judgment. Yes, that’s a lot to know intuitively, but that’s what Paul says!
And this isn’t a slip of the pen on Paul’s part. In Ephesians 2 Paul describes the state of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians prior to hearing and believing the gospel:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13 ESV)
Paul says the opposite of the assumption behind point 1. These Gentiles, apart from the saving message of Jesus, were left in their ignorance, yes. But did this mean they were already saved? No, apart from faith in Jesus, they had “no hope” and were “without God.”
To wrap up, we should ask where Paul got this crazy idea. I would argue that it’s part of the initial revelation Paul received when Jesus called him as an apostle. In recalling his conversation to Jesus the Messiah of Israel to King Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul says:
And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’…I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. (Acts 26:15-20 ESV)
So Christians like the priest/missionary in our meme above are mistaken and can confuse those to whom they preach the message of Jesus. Whether or not a person has ever heard of the message of Jesus—and this is true of both Jew and non-Jew— we have all violated God’s moral will for our lives and it is this disobedience and spiritual rebellion for which we will be justly judged.
I’m planning on writing a short series of posts on the new phenomenon known as the theology meme. The meme is, as defined by Google, “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.” Memes are often crafted to communicate a single point in a punchy way, so naturally they most appeal to young people.
Sure, there are fair criticisms on the use of memes in online dialogue, I get that. But the simple truth is that they’re going to be around for a while. So let’s use them to sharpen our thinking.
What is a Christian meme? The picture to your right is a simple example. Where are they going with this? Well, the point of view of the meme’s creator should be obvious. He/she is used to attacks against Christianity coming from your standard college hippie-liberal. And the single point being made? The criticisms of bible-abuse they level against conservative Christians are in fact mirrored in their own arguments. They do exactly what they hate in others.
So in the coming days I’ll trying to post some memes and briefly respond to them. Next up we’ll thinking through the meme blow.
Greg Bahnsen was one of Van Til’s greatest expositors. His book Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is a treasure trove of biblical instruction answering the Why and How of presuppositional apologetics. Here Bahnsen discusses the transcendental trust of the method. For those not familiar with Van Til’s approach it can be much at first, but once you “get it” you realize that you’re dealing with nuclear strength apologetics:
If the way in which people reason and interpret evidence is determined by their presupposed worldviews, and if the worldviews of the believer and unbeliever are in principle completely at odds with each other, how can the disagreement between them over the justification of Biblical claims be resolved? It might seem that all rational argumentation is precluded since appeals to evidence and logic will be controlled by the respective, conflicting worldviews of the believer and unbeliever. However this is not the case.
Differing worldviews can be compared to each other in terms of the important philosophical question about the “preconditions of intelligibility” for such important assumptions as the universality of logical laws, the uniformity of nature, and the reality of moral absolutes. We can examine a worldview and ask whether its portrayal of nature, man, knowledge, etc. provide an outlook in terms of which logic, science and ethics can make sense. It does not comport with the practices of natural science to believe that all events are random and unpredictable, for instance. It does not comport with the demand for honesty in scientific research, if no moral principle expresses anything but a personal preference or feeling. Moreover, if there are internal contradictions in a person’s worldview, it does not provide the preconditions for making sense out of man’s experience. For instance, if one’s political dogmas respect the dignity of men to make their own choices, while one’s psychological theories reject the free will of men, then there is an internal defect in that person’s worldview.
It is the Christian’s contention that all non-Christian worldviews are beset with internal contradictions, as well as with beliefs which do not render logic, science or ethics intelligible. On the other hand, the Christian worldview (taken from God’s self-revelation in Scripture) demands our intellectual commitment because it does provide the preconditions of intelligibility for man’s reasoning, experience, and dignity.
In Biblical terms, what the Christian apologist does is demonstrate to unbelievers that because of their rejection of God’s revealed truth, they have “become vain in their reasonings” (Rom. 1:21). By means of their foolish perspective they end up “opposing themselves” (2 Tim. 2:25). They follow a conception of knowledge which does not deserve the name (1 Tim. 6:20). Their philosophy and presuppositions rob one of knowledge (Col. 2:3, 8), leaving them in ignorance (Eph. 4:17-18; Acts 17:23). The aim of the apologist is to cast down their reasonings (2 Cor. 10:5) and to challenge them in the spirit of Paul: “Where is the wise? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything.
What the unbeliever needs is nothing less than a radical change of mind – repentance (Acts 17:30). He needs to change his fundamental worldview and submit to the revelation of God in order for any knowledge or experience to make sense. He at the same time needs to repent of his spiritual rebellion and sin against God. Because of the condition of his heart, he cannot see the truth or know God in a saving fashion.
-Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, 121-122.