Revised Introductory Note
Since the first posting of this article in 2013 it has received 100’s of comments on my blog and has been reposted to numerous atheist forums and private blogs.
What I’ve noticed about the general nature of atheist responses to this article is an unfortunate misunderstanding concerning my purpose. Most seem to imagine that I had in mind a full scale Christian apologetic against atheism, or at least a presentation of insurmountable evidence for Christianity’s claims. This was not the vision.
For the sake of clarity, this article is meant to expose why the following atheist arguments (or, rather, assertions) fail to hit their target when debating with Christians. There are great arguments against Christianity, but this article is not about the great arguments, its about the most popular ones.
My rebuttals are aimed at exposing why these overplayed hands are ineffective and will continue to be ineffective, not with atheists, but with many (hopefully most) believers. If I were to present an exhaustive apologetic against atheism it would require many long articles, which I have no intention to write since it’s all been done before.
Plus I hate long articles.
1. There is no evidence for God’s existence.
There is at least one major problem with this line as it is typically presented.
One often hears, “there is no evidence for God, therefore Christians believe in fairy tales,” (or something to that effect) when what is actually meant is more like, “there is no physical proof of God’s being in the physical world, therefore Christians believe in fairy tales (since all ‘real’ things for the atheistic-materialist are assumed to be physical).”
The fact that Christians have never claimed to believe in a physical God – as merely one more physical being among all other physical beings in the universe – does not stop these sorts of atheists from thinking they have laid waste to 40 centuries of religious thought, experience, and refinement with the mere mention of this evidentiary boogieman. It rarely occurs to them that such physical proof would actually run 100% counter to Judeo-Christian theistic claims. Their argument against a physical God is actually applauded and defended by Christians. The Bible proudly declares many times over that God is spirit.
Simply put: Christianity believes in a immaterial God, thus to demand material proof of His existence is nonsensical.
This fact is not, of course, proof that the Christian claim is true, but merely proof that with such attacks the atheist has not even begun to swing in the direction of Christianity.
Many atheists will protest saying rather that God’s ‘activity’ should be detectable in the physical world, not His actual being. Fair enough, but when presented with evidences of God’s activity in the world these same atheists roundly reject them, regardless of the scientific or philosophic soundness of the evidence. There simply seems to be no evidence of God’s activity in the world that passes the jury of popular atheist opinion. Many seem to think that admitting a single evidence into their court would equal a total breakdown in their case against Christianity. I remind the reader to please keep in mind: “evidence” does not equal “proof”. One is not intellectually forced to accept Christianity based on good evidence.
For one of many excellent presentations of arguments for God, try the book Evidence for God, which gives 50 separate evidences in science, philosophy, and theology each by top-notch scholars in the respective fields.
However, if by “no evidence” an atheist has in mind something more like, “There is no logical evidence of God’s existence…” then the straw man suddenly becomes a brick wall. The logical arguments for God are vast and time tested against some of the greatest minds of all time working tirelessly against them. They are well-known arguments and can be easily found online or in print. But what is discouraging when engaging with atheists in debate, particularly online, is the constant charge that the faith is illogical, irrational, or the stuff of ancient fairy tales believed only by the ignorant and the mentally ill. It’s one thing to willfully deny the evidence for God after giving it an honest hearing, its another thing to remain willfully ignorant of an opposing view while claiming the opposing view is ignorant. I have found that such behavior is typically a sign of a person woefully insecure about his or her position, using an abundance of insults as cover for a bankruptcy of insight.
2. If God created the universe, who created God?
This is one of the more peculiar arguments I’ve ever come across. It is an argument usually levied once a theist posits that God is required for the existence of the universe (an absolute being upon which all other things exist by way of contingency). Some atheists then shift the weight over to the theist saying, “Well then who created God?” This very familiar argument demonstrates a failure to understand what almost any form of classical theism understands by the name “God”. Speaking for Christianity, God is the One who is – i.e., the only One who is the source of His own being. He is worshiped as the uncreated One who always was and always will be. God is not seen by the Christian as one more being in the total aggregate of all beings in the universe. Rather He is the source and ground of all being, of all existence (follow this link for more).
One way to say it, though it might sound odd at first, is that Christians do not believe that God ever came into existence (Kierkegaard). Think of it in the old ‘Cosmological Argument’ sense. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause. The universe began to exist, therefore it had a cause. But God never began to exist; He always was, i.e., eternal.
The atheist will typically respond with, “who cares what you assert about God, it still does not answer the question.” And this is a great example of the moment when atheists and Christians begin to talk past one another. For the Christian the question is purely nonsensical, for the atheist it’s pure logical fallacy.
On that note, for those who would cry “Special Pleading” at this claim must defend the alternative, which, strictly speaking, is illogical in a universe made entirely of contingent realities. Without the logical assignment of an absolute upon which all things are contingent, one is left with something like absolute contingency or unconditional conditionality of the physical universe (this assuming one believes in the eternality of nature; if not, if one believes the universe had a beginning, then he must defend an even more fantastic illogical leap, that of “just-thereness” of the universe, which differs very little from pure magic). But the belief that God alone is eternal in His being is not special pleading to begin with for the simple fact that the subject matter is something truly unique, justifiably “special”. If one cannot claim that at least one thing is Absolute, or “Necessary” in a universe of conditionality, then reality as we know it is irrational (for a great book on this see David Bentley Hart’s, The Experience of God).
Better to be wrongly accused of a logical fallacy then rightly accused of a logical absurdity.
3. God is not all-powerful if there is something He cannot do. God cannot lie, therefore God is not all-powerful.
This argument would be fantastic—devastating maybe—if God was more of the ancient Greek god persuasion, where the gods themselves were subject to fate and limited to their specific roles in the cosmos. The Orthodox doctrine of God is much different. Christians (at least Orthodox Christians) view God’s ontology as subject to His perfect free-will. Why is He good? Because He wills to be good. Why does He not lie? Because He wills to be honest. Why does God exist as Trinity? Because He wills it. He could just as easily will to not exist. And yes, He could just as easily will to lie. The fact that He doesn’t is no commentary on whether He could.
(Note: Due to the immense amount of discussion that this point has raised, one clarifying statement is worth noting. An argument based on strict logical word games can render the idea ‘all-powerful,’ or ‘omnipotent’ self-defeating. When one considers the juvenile question, “Can God create a rock so big that He can’t lift it?” this point becomes clear. But there is a serious error at work here if one interprets the Christian belief in an “almighty God” with this understanding of omnipotent. Christianity’s claim that God is almighty simply means that all power and authority are God’s. If the nuance escaped you, please read the last sentence again. It’s very important. Christians do not mean by all-powerful that God can do the logically absurd, such as make a two sided triangle, count how many miles are in purple, or defeat the flying spaghetti monster in a paper-rock-scissor death match. But, for giggles let’s answer the question: can God create a rock so big that He can’t lift it? No. There you have it. If you’re in jr. high school you may now slap yourself a high-five for defeating the “all-powerful god” that Christianity never claimed to believe in.)
4. Believing in God is the same as believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
What I love about this well-worn atheist ‘argument’ is that it actually serves to demonstrate how vastly different a belief in God is to these myths and imaginations. When one honestly assesses the Judeo-Christian doctrine of God he will find multiple thousands of years of human testimony and religious development; he will find martyrs enduring the most horrific trauma in defense of the faith; he will find accounts in religious texts with historical and geographical corroboration; etc (these fact are of course not ‘proofs,’ but rather ‘evidences’ that elicit strong consideration). Pit this against tales of the Tooth Fairy, Santa, and Spaghetti Monsters and one finds the exact opposite: no testimony or religious refinement, no martyrs, no historical and geographical corroboration, etc. Instead, one finds myths created intentionally for children, for point making, or for whatever. It’s strawman argumentation at its worst.
Again, just to be clear, testimony, martyrs, geography, etc., are not “proof” that God exists, but rather proof that comparing faith in God to faith in fairies and Santa is totally different.
5. Christianity arose from an ancient and ignorant people who didn’t have science.
Indeed, those ancient, ignorant people who believed in the virgin birth of Christ must have believed it because they did not possess the knowledge of how babies were born. Goodness. The virgin birth of Christ was profound and of paramount concern to the ancients precisely because they understood that conception was impossible without intercourse. Ancient man considered the virgin birth miraculous, i.e., impossible without divine action (and at the time most people scorned the idea), and the same could be said with every miraculous story in Scripture.
Indeed ancient people did not have the Hubble telescope, but they were able to see the night sky in full array, something almost no modern person can claim (thanks to modern lighting which distorts our ability to see the full night sky). On average, ancient people lived much closer to nature and to the realities of life and death than many of us moderners.
In terms of a living relationship with these things the ancients were far more advanced than we are today, and this relationship is essentially the nature of religious inquiry. If people lack religious speculation today, maybe it is because they spend more time with their iphones and Macs then with nature. Maybe.
But the claim that Christianity was viable in the ancient world because it was endorsed by wide spread ignorance is a profoundly ignorant idea. Christianity arose in one of the most highly advanced civilizations in human history. The Roman Empire was not known for its stupidity. It was the epicenter of innovation and philosophical giants. I would wager that if a common person of today found himself in a philosophical debate with a common person of first century Alexandria, the moderner would be utterly humiliated in the exchange.
6. Christian’s only believe in Christianity because they were born in a Christian culture. If they’d been born in India they would have been Hindu instead.
This argument is appealing because it pretends to wholly dismiss people’s reasoning capabilities based on their environmental influences in childhood. The idea is that people in general are so intellectually near-sighted that they can’t see past their own upbringing, which, it would follow, would be an equally condemning commentary on atheism (if one was consistent with the charge), but the idea is fairly easy to counter.
Take the history of the Jewish people for example. Let us say that to ‘be’ Jewish, in the religious sense, is much more than a matter of cultural adherence. To be a Jewish believer is to have Judaism permeate one’s thinking and believing and interaction with the world. But is this the state of affairs with the majority of the Jewish people, whether in America, Europe, Israel, or wherever? One would have to be seriously out of touch to believe so. The same phenomenon is found within so-called Christian communities, that is: many sport a Christian title, but are wholly derelict in personal faith. “Believing” in Christianity is a far more serious endeavor then merely wearing a church name tag. Indeed, being born in a Jewish or Christian centric home today is more often a precursor that the child will grow up to abandon the faith of his or her family, or at least be associated with the faith by affiliation only.
7. The gospel doesn’t make sense: God was mad at mankind because of sin so he decided to torture and kill his own Son so that he could appease his own pathological anger. God is the weirdo, not me.
This is actually a really good argument against certain Protestant sects (I’ve used it myself on numerous occasions), but it has no traction with the Orthodox Christian faith. The Orthodox have no concept of a God who needed appeasement in order to love His creation. The Father sacrificed His own Son in order to destroy death with His life; not to assuage His wrath, but to heal; not to protect mankind from His fury, but to unite mankind to His love. If the reader is interested to hear more on this topic follow this link for a fuller discussion.
8. History is full of mother-child messiah cults, trinity godheads, and the like. Thus the Christian story is a myth like the rest.
This argument seems insurmountable on the surface, but is really a slow-pitch across the plate. There is no arguing the fact that history is full of similar stories found in the Bible, and I won’t take the time to recount them here. But this fact should not be surprising in the least, indeed if history had no similar stories it would be reason for concern. Anything beautiful always has replicas. A counterfeit coin does not prove the non-existence of the authentic coin, it proves the exact opposite. A thousand U2 cover bands is not evidence that U2 is a myth.
Ah, but that doesn’t address the fact that some of these stories were told before the Biblical accounts. True. But imagine if the only story of a messianic virgin birth, death, and resurrection were contained in the New Testament. That, to me, would be odd. It would be odd because if all people everywhere had God as their Creator, yet the central event of human history—the game changing event of all the ages—the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ had never occurred to them, in at least some hazy form, they would have been completely cut off from the prime mysteries of human existence. It seems only natural that if the advent of Christ was real it would permeate through the consciousness (or, if you prefer, ‘unconsciousness’) of mankind on some level regardless of their place in history. One should expect to find mankind replicating these stories, found in their own visions and dreams, again and again throughout history. And indeed, that is what we find.
9. The God of the Bible is evil. A God who allows so much suffering and death can be nothing but evil.
This criticism is voice in many different ways. For me, this is one of the most legitimate arguments against the existence of a good God. The fact that there is suffering and death is the strongest argument against the belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. If suffering and death exist it seems to suggest one of two things: (1) either God is love, but He is not all-powerful and cannot stop suffering and death, or (2) God is all-powerful, but He does not care for us.
I devoted a separate article addressing this problem, but let me deal here with the problem inherent in the criticism itself. The argument takes as its presupposition that good and evil are real; that there is an ultimate standard of good and evil that supersedes mere fanciful ‘ideas’ about what is good and evil at a given time in our ethical evolution, as it were. If there is not a real existence—an ontological reality—of good and evil, then the charge that God is evil because of this or that is really to say nothing more than, “I personally don’t like what I see in the world and therefore a good God cannot exist.” I like what C.S. Lewis said on a similar matter: “There is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached.’”
What is tricky for the atheist in these sorts of debates is to steer clear of words loaded with religious overtones. It’s weird for someone who does not believe in ultimate good and evil to condemn God as evil because He did not achieve their personal vision of good. So, the initial criticism is sound, but it is subversive to the atheist’s staging ground. If one is going to accept good and evil as realities, he is not in a position to fully reject God. Instead, he is more in a position to wrestle with the idea that God is good. This struggle is applauded in the Orthodox Church. After all, the very word God used for his people in the Old Testament—“Israel”—means to struggle with God.
10. Evolution has answered the question of where we came from. There is no need for ignorant ancient myths anymore.
This might be the most popular attempted smack-downs of religion in general today. It is found in many variations but the concept is fairly consistent and goes something like this: Science has brought us to a point where we no longer need mythology to understand the world, and any questions which remain will eventually be answered through future scientific breakthroughs. The main battle-ground where this criticism is seen today is in evolution vs. creationism debates.
Let me say upfront that there is perhaps no other subject that bores me more than evolution vs. creationism debates. I would rather watch paint dry. And when I’m not falling asleep through such debates I’m frustrated because usually both sides of the debate use large amounts of dishonesty in order to gain points rather than to gain the truth. The evolutionist has no commentary whatsoever on the existence of God, and the creationist usually suffers from profound confusion in their understanding of the first few chapters of Genesis.
So, without entering into the most pathetic debate of the ages, bereft of all intellectual profundity, I’ll only comment on the underlining idea that science has put Christianity out of the answer business. Science is fantastic if you want to know what gauge wire is compatible with a 20 amp electric charge, how agriculture works, what causes disease and how to cure it, and a million other things. But where the physical sciences are completely lacking is in those issues most important to human beings—the truly existential issues: what does it mean to be human, why are we here, what is valuable, what does it mean to love, to hate, what am I to do with guilt, grief, sorrow, what does it mean to succeed, is there any meaning and what does ‘meaning’ mean, and, of course, is there a God? etc, ad infinitum.
As far as where we come from, evolution has barely scratched the purely scientific surface of the matter. Even if the whole project of evolution as an account of our history was without serious objection, it would still not answer the problem of the origin of life, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available when considering how dead or inorganic matter becomes organic. Even more complicated is the matter of where matter came from. The ‘Big Bang’ is not an answer to origins but rather a description of the event by which everything came into being; i.e., it’s the description of a smoking gun, not the shooter.
That’s it… my top 10 list. Thanks for reading. Cheers.
The preceding survey of the history of apologetics illustrates the wide variety of approaches that have been developed to defend the Christian faith since the first century. Christian apologists have faced different challenges from different quarters and at different times, and they have sought to defend their faith in a variety of ways. This has led to considerable disagreement over such metapologetical issues as the following:
- the theory of knowledge one assumes in presenting Christianity as truth
- the value of theistic proofs
- the degree of certainty that Christianity provides
- the relationship between faith and reason and between philosophy and Christianity
- the role of evidences in apologetics
- the existence and nature of common ground between Christians and non-Christians
Coming to terms with these issues and approaches is the purpose of this book.
Four Types of Apologetic Systems
Until the twentieth century, only a few writers grappled seriously with the issue of apologetic method. As Avery Dulles affirms, this is no longer the case: “The 20th century has seen more clearly than previous periods that apologetics stands or falls with the question of method. In the past few decades apologetical science has merged to an increasing degree with the epistemology of religious knowledge.”1 The reason for this close relationship between apologetic science and religious epistemology is that modern thought since Kant has been in epistemological crisis. How do we know what we think we know? This question has been viewed as especially troublesome for religious knowledge claims, and Christian apologetics has necessarily been forced to deal with it.
Because of the importance of epistemology for modern doubts and denials of the Christian revelation, the most fundamental assumptions that distinguish the apologetic systems that have developed in modern Christian thought are epistemological. Edwin A. Burtt, in his Types of Religious Philosophy, cataloged four principal methods of pursuing theological questions: the rationalistic, the empirical, the authoritarian, and the intuitive.2 Applying Burtt’s typology of religious philosophy to apologetics in particular, we may distinguish four basic approaches to apologetics, which we have called classical apologetics (corresponding to what Burtt calls the rationalistic method), evidentialism (empirical), Reformed apologetics (authoritarian), and fideism (intuitive).3 Each of these four approaches to apologetics, though it had precursors in earlier periods of church history, emerged as a distinct approach to apologetics grounded in an explicit epistemology in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. We will briefly describe each of these here.
Classical apologetics, as we are using the term in this book, refers to an apologetic approach that emphasizes the use of logical criteria (for example, the law of noncontradiction, self-consistency, comprehensiveness, coherence) in determining the validity of competing religious philosophies. These criteria are used to refute the truth claims of non-Christian worldviews and to establish the existence of God through theistic proofs. The approach in its modern form is characterized by a “two-step” method of apologetics in which one first makes a case for theism (the worldview that affirms the existence of one Creator God) and then presents evidence that this God has revealed himself in Christ and in the Bible. The most famous Christian thinker commonly regarded as paving the way for this approach was the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. In modern evangelical apologetics it is perhaps best represented by Norman L. Geisler. We discuss this approach in Part Two, “Classical Apologetics: It Stands to Reason.”
Evidentialism seeks to ground the Christian faith primarily on empirically and historically verifiable facts. Evidentialists often draw a parallel between the scientific method of testing theories and theological verification. They argue that a high degree of probability can be established in favor of Christianity, and that this is the same kind of credibility as that associated with confirmed scientific laws. The evidence does not necessarily constitute proof, but it is sufficient to answer objections and to show that belief in Christianity is not unreasonable. Rather than a two-step method of first defending theism and then defending Christianity, as in the classical approach, evidentialists consider the evidence for creation, for the inspiration of the Bible, and for the divine identity of Christ (especially based on his resurrection from the dead) as part of an overall case for the reality of the Christian God. Joseph Butler is commonly regarded as the pioneer of this apologetic type, and in recent decades it has been especially associated with the Lutheran scholar John Warwick Montgomery. We discuss this approach in Part Three, “Evidentialist Apologetics: Just the Facts.”
The term classical apologetics is sometimes used to refer to evidentialism as well as the more rationally-oriented form discussed above. We have chosen to use the term in its narrower sense for two reasons. First, evidentialism is a distinctly modern development that in some respects represents a repudiation of certain key aspects of the traditional, classical approach to apologetics. Second, what we are terming classical apologetics, though it emphasizes rationality in general and deductive reasoning in particular, should not be confused with the modern philosophical tradition known as rationalism, which regards the rational mind as the sole source of knowledge. The more “rational” approach to apologetics typically rejects rationalism in this sense. Other recent publications have also distinguished classical apologetics from evidentialism.4
Reformed apologetics argues that we ought to ground reason and fact on the truth of the Christian faith, rather than trying to prove or defend the faith on the basis of reason or fact.5 Empirical and rational approaches to religious truth are doomed to failure by the moral impairment (though not the technical efficiency) of the human mind fallen in sin; worse, they assume the self-sufficiency of human beings to employ reason and interpret the facts independent of divine revelation. Therefore, apologetic systems based on such epistemologies are both inadequate and inappropriate to defend the faith. The only means of argumentation between the two groups must be indirect, that is, on the level of fundamental assumptions or presuppositions. Most Reformed apologists seek to show that while non-Christian belief systems cannot account for the validity of reason, fact, and truth, Christian theism can. This approach was inspired by the theology of John Calvin; its most influential modern advocate was Cornelius Van Til. We discuss this approach in Part Four, “Reformed Apologetics: God Said It.”
Fideism may be (and has been) defined in a variety of ways. The term derives from the Latin fide, meaning “faith.” It has commonly been used as a pejorative term for the position that one should “just believe” in God or Christ apart from any reasoning or evidence. (Some critics have alleged that Reformed apologetics is fideistic in this sense; as we shall see, this characterization is mistaken.) More broadly, fideism maintains that human knowledge of truth (including, and especially, religious truth) is at bottom a personal matter of the heart or the will rather than of the intellect. Personal, existential experience with God cannot be grounded in rational analysis or scientific and historical evidences, since it is a matter of the heart. Fideists often stress the paradoxical and personal-encounter dimension of Christian truth. They emphasize the transcendence and hiddenness of God and repudiate natural theology and theistic proofs. Fideism argues from humanity’s basic existential needs to the fulfillment of those needs in Christianity. While in many respects fideism has tended to reject apologetics as an intellectual discipline, some Christian apologists have seen value in its emphasis on the personal, subjective dimension in faith and religious commitment. On the Roman Catholic side, Blaise Pascal is often regarded as having anticipated this approach. The Protestant fideist tradition, though, is based in Lutheran pietism and is rooted in significant ways in the thought of Martin Luther himself. (It should be emphasized that neither Pascal nor Luther can properly be described as fideists. Rather, certain elements of their thought anticipated or prepared the way for the eventual emergence of fideism.) The Christian thinker who represents fideism in its purest form is the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. We discuss the fideist perspective in Part Five, “Apologetics as Persuasion.”
Four Approaches to Apologetics
John W. Montgomery
Cornelius Van Til
How would astute advocates of these four approaches respond to the apologetic challenges posed by Sarah and Murali, our two hypothetical non-Christians? Recall that Sarah is a skeptic who has departed from the Christian faith because of its moral demands and who is troubled by the problem of evil, while Murali is a nominal Hindu living in America who believes all religions are basically the same. (See the preface for more detailed profiles of these two characters.) Our four astute apologists, each representing one the four approaches, we have named Tom, Joe, Cal, and Martina (see above chart for their respective approaches). Although we present specifics on how these approaches would be applied in conversations between these imaginary apologists and non-Christians in the remainder of this book, we offer a glimpse here.
Tom’s approach to both Sarah and Murali would follow a two-step method common in classical apologetics. First, he would expose the logical incoherence of their positions. He might explain to Sarah that the concept of evil on which she bases her rejection of God’s existence logically implies an absolute moral standard, which can only come from a transcendent Creator. Tom would probably tell Murali that it is logically impossible for religions that affirm such different worldviews as pantheism (Hinduism) and monotheism (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) all to be true. Second, Tom would offer carefully constructed answers to the non-Christians’ objections, proving that those objections have failed to prove any logical incoherence in the Christian position. He would likely respond to Sarah’s problem of evil by explaining that God has a higher purpose for allowing evil and will eventually overcome evil with good. He would probably also insist that while God has allowed evil, he is not its cause; human beings have caused evil by the exercise of their free will. In response to Murali’s argument that God must approve of different religions if he allowed so many to flourish, Tom would likewise attribute the different religions to the freedom of human beings to go their own way. He would then propose examining the worldview of each religion to determine which of them, if any, offered a coherent view of the world.
Joe’s basic approach as an evidentialist would be to present facts that he believes support the Christian position and undermine the non-Christians’ objections. He would probably point out to Sarah the abundant evidence for a good and powerful Creator and argue that this outweighs the evidence of evil against belief in God. The facts Joe adduces might be wide-ranging, but are likely to include scientific evidence for the universe’s beginning and intelligent design as well as historical evidence for the miraculous acts of God in the Bible. Joe would present the same facts to Murali as evidence against nontheistic religions and in support of the claim that the God of the Bible is actually the real God.
Cal’s Reformed approach would preclude making direct appeals to deductive reasoning or empirical facts in the manner of Tom or Joe. In Cal’s estimation, Sarah and Murali are committed to a spiritually jaundiced way of using reason and looking at facts. He would therefore take what he calls an indirect approach, which, like Tom’s, involves two basic steps. First, Cal would argue that both Sarah and Murali presuppose their own self-sufficiency or “autonomy” to judge for themselves what is true and right. Sarah’s judgment that God must not be good if he allows evil presupposes that she is able to determine for herself, from within herself, the standard of goodness to which even God must conform. Murali’s complaint that God should not have allowed so many different religions if he wanted us to believe in only one also presupposes his competency to judge what God should or should not do. Cal would then remind them of what they already know in their hearts: that they are not God and that their arrogant pretensions to autonomy are symptomatic of their fallenness with all mankind in sin. Second, Cal will argue that only on the presupposition that the God of Scripture is real can we even give a coherent account of the concepts of goodness and justice to which Sarah and Murali appeal in their arguments against Christianity. Sarah’s argument from the problem of evil presupposes that there is a standard of goodness against which evil is judged; yet, in denying the existence of God she is left without any rational basis for judging anything to be evil. Murali’s claim that God must accept many different religions since he has allowed them to flourish presupposes that God is just or fair, but this idea cannot be justified except on the basis that God is the personal Creator and Judge spoken of in Scripture.
Our fourth apologist, Martina, would take a very different approach from those of the other three. In her view the direct arguments of Tom and Joe and the indirect argument of Cal are all problematic because they treat God as an object of rational argument rather than as a Person with whom Sarah and Murali need to have a relationship. Martina would focus on relating to them as individuals rather than refuting their arguments. She would get to know them and try to help them see the personal issues underlying their questions and objections. For example, she might try to lead Sarah to realize that she was already questioning God before her philosophy professor gave her intellectual ammunition against Christianity. Was it God that seemed uncaring, or some Christians she knew? Martina would likely emphasize that God’s compassion and love are far greater than any sentimentalism human beings may express. God really wants our good, even when that good can be achieved only through suffering. Martina might ask Murali why, if he thinks all religions are good ways to the same goal, he doesn’t seem to be following any of them seriously. The one thing that nearly every religion insists is necessary is a deep personal commitment, and Murali doesn’t have that. Martina might challenge him to examine the different religions with the question, to which one can he commit himself wholly? For herself, Martina would likely say, she refuses to make an absolute commitment to any philosophy or religion. God—not just the idea of God, but the personal God who speaks and acts and loves us in Jesus—is alone worthy of our absolute commitment and trust.
Issues in Apologetics
These four approaches to apologetics differ in many ways. In this book we will focus on a dozen critical issues that represent in a systematic way the full range of issues facing the apologist.6 These issues are divided into two groups of six issues each. The first group deals with metapologetic issues—foundational questions about the stance apologetics should take toward human knowledge and experience. The second group deals with apologetic issues—the most common questions or objections that non-Christians (or Christians dealing with doubt or confusion) raise to the Christian truth claim.
Apologetics is a discipline that seeks to defend the Christian view of God, the world, and human life. As such, it relates comprehensively to every area of human knowledge and thought. Apologists understand these relations differently. These differences are typified in the stance taken by apologists toward the following six questions.
1. On what basis do we argue that Christianity is the truth?
On the basis of what understanding of knowledge and truth should the Christian apologist seek to lead non-Christians to the knowledge of Christianity as the truth? As we have seen, this question is at the core of what distinguishes the four approaches discussed in this book. The classical apologist sees reason as the ground of apologetic argument. The evidentialist seeks to build a case for Christianity from the facts. The Reformed apologist contends that God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and in Scripture is the proper ground for all thinking about reason, fact, and human experience. The fideist presents experience of God in Jesus Christ as self-justifying apart from argument. These varying approaches are based on different epistemologies, or theories of knowledge. (Epistemology is concerned with the nature and ground of knowledge—what knowledge is, and how we know what we know—and especially with the justification of knowledge claims.) Thus the classical apologist adheres to a broadly rationalist epistemology, the evidentialist to an empirical or fact-based epistemology, the Reformed apologist to an authoritarian epistemology (with Christ and Scripture the supreme authorities), and the fideist to a subjectivist, experience-based epistemology. Tied up with these epistemologies are varying beliefs about the kind of certainty that can be afforded through apologetic argumentation, the existence and identity of “common ground” or relevant shared truth between Christians and non-Christians, and the relation between faith and reason.
This metapologetic question also relates directly to an apologetic question. Non-Christians object to the absolute truth-claim made by Christians on behalf of the gospel. Most people in our society today do not believe in absolute truth and consider any absolute religious claims particularly onerous. The rise of postmodernism represents the newest wave of assaults on the belief in absolute truth. The responses to this question from the four apologetic approaches will naturally parallel their answers to the question in its metapologetic form. Thus the classical apologist will argue that denials of absolute truth are irrational. The evidentialist will typically argue that while absolute rational certainty for the claims of Christ is unavailable, those claims can be supported by the facts, perhaps beyond reasonable doubt. The Reformed apologist will commonly contend that all people at bottom do believe in absolute truth and even presuppose that belief at every turn. The fideist will generally respond that absolute truth is not a matter of propositional knowledge or factual information anyway, but is a Person who is known in relationship, not in mere words. Fideists are more likely than advocates of other apologetic approaches to find value or points of contact in postmodernism, since that movement eschews the modernist assumption of scientific and rational objectivity and views belief systems primarily as functions of the individual and the community.
2. What is the relationship between apologetics and theology?
This relationship is a primary issue in metapologetics, though its importance is often overlooked. This question is important in two ways.
First, there is significant debate concerning the theological foundation of apologetics. To some extent apologetical methods are related to the way one understands and interprets Christian theology. The close relationship between theology and apologetics is especially evident in Reformed apologetics, because it originated from and is almost completely tied into the Reformed tradition in systematic theology. On the other hand, some Reformed theologians engage in rational and evidential apologetics, although those we are calling Reformed apologists regard these thinkers as inconsistent Calvinists who have slipped into a Thomistic or Arminian apologetic methodology. Thus one cannot avoid theology when considering how to do apologetics. Apologists disagree, for example, about whether God’s revelation in nature can be sufficiently understood by non-Christians to arrive at belief in God. This disagreement is closely tied to a debate over the effects of sin on human reasoning.
Second, apologists hold different views about the relationship of apologetics as a discipline to the discipline of theology (particularly systematic theology). Some apologists view apologetics as a branch of theology (whether major or minor), while others regard it as a preparation for theology. The debate is significant because it affects our understanding of the rules or methods followed in apologetics as well as the purpose and scope of apologetics.
3. Should apologetics engage in a philosophical defense of the Christian faith?
Apologetics is often viewed and practiced almost as if it were synonymous with philosophy of religion—as a discipline that seeks to apply the tools of philosophy to defining and proving certain key beliefs of Christianity. On the other hand, some apologists show great disdain for philosophy, regarding it as the enemy of Christian faith. Historically, some apologists have sought to defend Christianity in terms drawn from the non-Christian philosophies of such thinkers as Plato or Aristotle or Kant. Meanwhile other apologists have regarded such efforts as inevitably compromising the Christian message that is supposedly being defended. This issue must be considered in developing an approach to apologetics.
4. Can science be used to defend the Christian faith?
For many non-Christians today, science poses the most formidable intellectual objections to Christian faith. Yet Christian apologists differ markedly in their view of the proper stance to be taken toward science. Some embrace the findings of science enthusiastically, claiming to find in them direct confirmation of the Christian faith. Others take the opposite position, viewing science in general with suspicion and regarding certain prevailing theories of science as inimical to the Christian faith. Still other apologists view science as irrelevant, since to them the Christian faith deals with issues that transcend the physical world that is the field of scientific inquiry.
5. Can the Christian faith be supported by historical inquiry?
The diversity of views on science among apologists is paralleled by a similar diversity concerning history. Some apologists stake the truth of the Christian message on its historical verifiability. Others, while agreeing that the faith is based on historical events, place little emphasis on historical inquiry or warn against believing that the central events of redemption can be verified “objectively” according to the canons of historical study. Still others regard the faith as in principle not subject to historical inquiry because it deals with the eternal, not the temporal.
6. How is our knowledge of Christian truth related to our experience?
All human beings process new information and ideas by relating them in some fashion to their own experiences in life. This fact necessitates giving some consideration to how apologetics should relate to experience. Some apologists seek to analyze human experience in terms of universal truths in which the Christian message can be grounded. Others eschew argumentation about experience and instead call on non-Christians to experience God’s love in Christ. Still others view all experience as untrustworthy and argue that it needs to be tested and interpreted in light of the authoritative teaching of Scripture. Some answer to the question of experience must be given, or at least assumed, by every apologist.
How each of the four apologetic approaches answers these six metapologetic questions, and how these answers may be integrated, will be considered in the second chapter of each of the remaining parts of this book (chapters 5, 9, 13, 17, and 21).
In the preface we introduced six common questions or objections to the Christian faith that are commonly brought up by non-Christians. We will comment briefly on each.
1. Why should we believe in the Bible?
All Christian apologists have as part of their “job description” the task of persuading people to accept the Bible as God’s word—as inspired Scripture. Apologists take different approaches to accomplishing this task. Some see the question of the Bible as the conclusion or end point of their apologetic. Typically they seek to demonstrate logically the truth of the biblical worldview, then to defend the truth of the central biblical claims on behalf of Jesus Christ, and only then to present the Bible as God’s word. Other apologists defend the truth and inspiration of the Bible inductively, by treating the Bible as a source and defending the authenticity and accuracy of that source in every major aspect. In contrast to these approaches, some apologists insist that the divine authority of the Bible must be presented as the only viable foundation for all knowledge; for them the inspiration of Scripture is the beginning, not the end, of the argument. Still other apologists focus not on defending the doctrine of biblical inspiration but on leading non-Christians to encounter Jesus Christ personally through the reading of Scripture.
2. Don’t all religions lead to God?
On the assumption that (absolute) truth claims in religion are unjustifiable, many people today argue that all religions are adequate to meet the needs that Christianity does. Apologists employing different methods tend to respond to this belief in different ways. Some try to show that all non-Christian religions are illogical. Others present evidence to support Christianity’s unique status among the religions of the world. Still others cut through the objection by responding that Christianity isn’t a religion at all.
3. How do we know that God exists?
All Christian apologists, of course, are concerned to bring non-Christians to the knowledge of God. However, they differ markedly in what sorts of arguments they regard as viable means of convincing non-Christians that God even exists. Some apologists employ arguments designed to prove conclusively that God exists, while others use arguments claiming only to show that it is not unreasonable to believe that God exists. Still others are critical of traditional arguments for God’s existence, preferring either an indirect argument or no argument at all. Some apologists, in fact, assert that arguments for God’s existence can actually interfere with or impede genuine faith.
4. If God does exist, why does he permit evil?
Ask ten non-Christians at random to give two objections to the Christian faith, and very likely nine of them will mention what is known as the problem of evil: How is it that there is evil in the world created by an all-powerful and all-loving God? Christian apologists respond to this challenge with different argumentative strategies. Some argue for the coherence of the Christian worldview as inclusive of evil and suffering. Others contend that the question is impudent and cannot be rationally answered. As this is probably the number one objection to the Christian faith, apologists must wrestle seriously with this question.
5. Aren’t the miracles of the Bible spiritual myths or legends and not literal fact?
Modern criticism of the Bible has resulted in the widespread belief that the books of the Bible were in general not written when or by whom they have traditionally been understood to have been written. Worse, it is commonly believed that the narratives of the Bible are not historical accounts but later myths or legends that have only tenuous roots in fact. In particular, many people today view the biblical accounts of such foundational miraculous events as the crossing of the Red Sea in the Exodus or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as symbolic myths teaching perennial spiritual truths rather than as miraculous historical events. Christian apologists approach the biblical miracles in different ways. Some seek to make them credible by first proving the existence of God. Others appeal directly to the historical evidence to show that these events occurred, and actually cite the biblical miracles as evidence of God’s existence. Others, though, view miracles as God’s activity in the world in response to faith and criticize traditional apologetic arguments as seeking to base faith on miracles. Once again, apologists who agree that the biblical miracles occurred have markedly different approaches to defending belief in those miracles.
6. Why should I believe what Christians claim about Jesus?
Most non-Christians are willing to grant that belief in Jesus can be helpful or meaningful to Christians, but balk at the claim that belief in Jesus is necessary for all people because what Christians believe about Jesus is the truth. In addition, many non-Christians today believe that biblical scholarship has called into question the traditional Christian view of Jesus as the supernatural, risen Savior and Lord. Apologists employ a variety of arguments designed to lead non-Christians to see and accept the truth claims of Jesus. Some reason that Jesus must be what the Bible says he is because no other explanation makes sense. Others present factual evidence for the life, the death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus, maintaining that it is sufficient to refute modern antibiblical theories about Jesus and to establish the Christian truth claims about him. Still other apologists argue, in effect, that Jesus himself is his own best argument: that non-Christians need simply to be confronted with the person of Jesus in the Gospels. They recognize that biblical scholarship does not deliver to us the traditional, biblical Christ, but contend that it could not and indeed should not do so: the Christ of faith transcends the “Jesus of history” and must be found by faith, not by historical inquiry. Thus, on so basic a question as why non-Christians should believe in Jesus, Christian apologists have offered some strikingly different answers.
How each of the four apologetic approaches answers the six apologetic questions raised here, and how these answers may be integrated, will be considered in the third chapter of each of the remaining parts of this book (chapters 6, 10, 14, 18, and 22).
For Further Reading
Cowan, Steven B., ed. Five Views on Apologetics. Counterpoint series. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. This book contains contributions by William Lane Craig (“The Classical Model”), Gary R. Habermas (“The Evidential Model”), John M. Frame (“The Presuppositional Model”), Kelly James Clark (“The Reformed Epistemology Model”), and Paul D. Feinberg (“The Cumulative Case Model”). The models of Habermas and Feinberg are variations of what we are calling evidentialism, while the models of Frame and Clark are variations of what we are calling Reformed apologetics.
Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976. See Part One, “Methodology” (13-147), for a classical apologist’s survey of different theories of knowledge as they relate to apologetic method.
Lewis, Gordon R. Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims: Approaches to Christian Apologetics. Chicago: Moody, 1976. Includes chapters on an evidentialist (Buswell), a classical apologist (Hackett), two Reformed apologists (Clark, Van Til), and a fideist (Barrett), followed by four chapters developing and defending Carnell’s approach.
Ramm, Bernard. Varieties of Christian Apologetics: An Introduction to the Christian Philosophy of Religion. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962. Profiles the life and thought of three thinkers each for three types of systems, stressing subjective immediacy (Pascal, Kierkegaard, Brunner), natural theology (Aquinas, Butler, Tennant), and revelation (Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper). (Ramm’s second type includes what we are calling both classical and evidentialist apologetics.) The first edition, entitled Types of Apologetic Systems (Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, 1953), included chapters on Van Til and Carnell instead of Calvin and Kuyper.
See Appendix for more detailed discussion of the books by Cowan, Lewis, and Ramm.
1Dulles, History of Apologetics (1st ed.), 246.
2Edwin A. Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1939), 448.
3For a comparison of this classification with that in other books on apologetics, see Appendix.
4E.g., Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Cowan (see Appendix).
5The usual name for the most popular form of Reformed apologetics is presuppositionalism, a term that has been used for the apologetic systems developed by Cornelius Van Til and Gordon H. Clark. However, the Reformed apologetical tradition is broader than Clark and Van Til. In particular, the apologetic thought of Alvin Plantinga would not properly be termed a form of presuppositionalism. Hence, we have chosen to use the broader term.
6For a list of ten questions or issues that overlap somewhat the dozen questions considered here, see Bernard Ramm, Varieties of Christian Apologetics: An Introduction to the Christian Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962), 17-27. Ramm’s questions deal with philosophy, proofs of God’s existence, truth, sin, revelation, certainty, common ground, faith, evidences, and faith and reason. Seven of these ten questions are also used, apparently independent of Ramm, as focus points in Mayers, Balanced Apologetics, 13, 95-96, 102-103, 116-18, 123-25, 132-33, 214-17.