Apologetics for the Average Christian: Saying “I Don’t Know”

keep-calm-because-i-don-t-knowOne of the most important responses a Christian can give to someone who asks a difficult question about the Christian faith is, “I don’t know.”

In the minds of many Christians, this is exactly what can never be admitted. To admit that they don’t know the answer seems like defeat, so it is best never to admit that you don’t know an answer. However, the refusal to admit ignorance has two negative effects on the apologetics encounter.

First, it leads some believers to bluff, which when attempted with a knowledgeable unbeliever, does serious damage to the credibility of the gospel. What does this bluffing look like? It may be something like making up statistics or claiming to have read a certain philosopher or scientist when you really haven’t. It may be making claims for Christianity that are simply not factual. Either way the Christian is acting dishonestly and risking the integrity of the gospel.

Second, refusing to admit that you don’t know the answer to an objection gives an unbeliever the impression that the Christian faith is to be held blindly. If an unbeliever knows I don’t know the answer to her question, and I refuse to admit it, she will think Christians hold to their beliefs despite the lack of evidence. This is exactly the distorted definition of faith that Richard Dawkins accuses Christians of practicing. The truth is, rather, that our faith is built on historical fact and divine revelation, and we shouldn’t believe firmly anything that is not informed by those sources.

Why, then, should we be quick to say, “I don’t know”?

First, it is intellectually honest. There will be MANY times that unbelievers will ask questions that blind side you. There are a million ways to suppress the truth and a thousand challenges to the Christian faith. It would be nigh impossible to have an answer for every conceivable objection that could be raised.

Second, demonstrating that you don’t pretend to be omniscient will often win points with an unbeliever. Christians are often perceived to be arrogant (sometimes rightly so), and by admitting you don’t know an answer, you demonstrate genuine humility, which may shock your unbelieving conversation partner. Remember, the skeptic’s argument against Christianity is not always (or even often) intellectual. Sometimes they object because they have never met a Christian they liked. By admitting ignorance in response to a hard question, you make yourself more real, and therefore, likeable.

Finally, admitting you don’t know something allows you to follow up with the unbeliever. Since evangelism is best accomplished as an ongoing relationship, telling an unbeliever that you will have to get back to her, and when can we meet again, allows you to continue defending and commending the faith. This also allows you to turn the tables on your conversation partner by being the one prepared to discuss a topic you have studied, while she may struggle with the answers you have provided. And that’s a good thing—to make the unbeliever squirm, I mean—because quite often squirming leads to more questions. The more questions you answer, the fewer obstacles will stand in the way of saving faith. So, by admitting you don’t know the answer may actually result in more unbelievers finding eternal life in Jesus Christ.

And all this begins with an honest, “I don’t know.”

Some Basics About the Trustworthiness of Scripture Every Christian Should Know


This is a guest post from Darrell Bock (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen). Bock is Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.

NT manuscriptThe reception of the Bible is a fascinating topic. We are dealing with writings stretched over more than 1400 years.  The Bible contains an array of accounts about events, some of which had to have been initially passed on orally. The 66 books of Scripture reflect the work of many different authors, writing in a variety of settings and times. The Old Testament text Protestants use matches that of Judaism. In the ancient world, the process of passing accounts down orally over time before something became written was done with care when material mattered. One of the reasons the apostles had to really know Jesus was because they kept an eye on how the Jesus story was preached  (Acts 1:21-22 and the oversight we see in Acts).

Recognition was another step in the process. The New Testament came to be recognized over a period of several centuries. The church did not choose the books of the New Testament. The use of books over time commended certain works over others. Athanasius gives us our earliest list of the 27 books in the AD 367, while Origen (c AD 250) may have mentioned all of them a century earlier (though there is debate whether he named the book of Revelation as manuscripts differ on this point).  Either way, the core of the New Testament was functioning as canon by the end of the second century as other evidence shows. At that time, Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon mention the core of the New Testament, noting the four gospels Acts, the Pauline Epistles, I Peter, and I John. These were the books that had apostolic roots and that churches in many distinct regions were using.

Origen, Irenaus and the Muratorian Canon predate any church councils where some claim the canonical books were chosen. New Testament books were not chosen but recognized by their use over time in churches. The pressure to identify them had come from a variety factors: the claim by some that other Scripture about Jesus existed, the challenge of some that some writings circulated as Scripture were not (shown by Marcion’s reduced version of Luke as his gospel), and persecution which said Scripture had to be destroyed (so one had to know what to destroy!).

Getting the Bible was a painstaking process of copying. Long before the printing press of the 15th century not to mention computers, copies of Scripture had to be preserved by painstaking copying, one letter at a time. Some copies were made individually. Others were made in scriptoriums where someone read the text. In these locations, many copies were made at once as several scribes listened and wrote. I often tell people the Bible they hold in their hands is possible because many people faithfully over several centuries copied the text to replace worn out copies. Those copies were not perfect, but the fact we have many manuscripts of these texts allows us to reproduce the text with a high level of certainty. Where we are not sure, we do know what the likely options are. Good Bible translations signal the options to you by having a note int eh margin that reads “or” with the variant noted. We have over 5800 Greek manuscripts. The best ancient texts of other works have 100-200 copies. In most cases we are confident what the text should read. In no case do these differences impact the overall teaching of the faith. What they impact is which verses teach and idea and so how many relate to a specific theme.

This copying process can be tested in terms of its accuracy by the many manuscripts we have. Some of the examples of this are amazing. When the Dead Sea scrolls were found we discovered a manuscript of Isaiah 1000 years older than any other version of Isaiah we possessed. The discovered text was virtually identical to its 1000 year older descendant. Although some issues remain in particular spots, the text we have today is a solid reproduction of what was produced.

But having a good copy of the text does not equal knowing its content is trustworthy. That depends on what is in the text one has. Today one hears many claims about errors or contradictions in the Bible. Web sites even boast about the plethora of such texts. Most of what they list is not new. Serious Study Bibles, some of which are dedicated to dealing with such issues, often note these texts and discuss how one can read them.  Differences in texts do not mean contradiction automatically.

The claim of the Scripture not being trustworthy either reflects a worldview that says God does not exist or act, attempts to argue that there are errors or contradictory theologies between the biblical books or a combination of these claims.

Many times such claims ignore the difference in perspective or in the usage of terms between authors, creating a problem where one does not really exist.  For example, Paul discusses salvation by grace apart from works of the law. James speaks about faith producing works (not works of the law, but as a product of genuine faith. James is showing grace at work because faith works. These are not in contradiction. They discuss different time frames. Paul is looking at the start of the process in grace by faith, while James is looking back at the impact of faith down the road.

Other issues ignore a progress in revelation, where early cultural practices are described or prescribed, but only for a time or set context. In these cases, a change in practice has moved into the resolved biblical position. A case such as polygamy in the Old Testament resolving itself into monogamy by the New is an example of this category. The point to keep in mind here is that texts need to be read in their cultural context and with an eye to where they are in the movement of Scripture.

So the application is that texts need to be read, not just cited in a list side by side. They also need to be studied, sometimes quite carefully.

There is a lesson here for the church. The less we show how the Bible works, the more likely lists like this will trouble people. I have in mind church leaders here. We need to teach about some of these kinds of issues and how skeptics read the Scripture so people are not caught out by these kinds of differences when skeptics raise them (including the details of what they raise). Encourage people to read Scripture carefully. Be aware of the kinds of issues more skeptical readers raise, even down to the details. Cultivate the awareness and use of serious Study Bible tools that can help people with specifics when the challenges are raised. There is nothing new in these doubts. Answers and responses exist. People need to know where they can go and have these kinds of issues explained so that one knows the difference between a difference and a contradiction. The Bible can be trusted. Resources exist to show this. The church needs to know what they are and use them.

Apologetics for the Average Christian: Search and Rescue vs. Seed Cultivation

Search and RescueOne of the reasons the average Christian does not like sharing the gospel is that she may have been taught a model of evangelism that resembles a search and rescue operation. The goal in this model is to find the non-Christian, defeat the unbelief holding him hostage, and win him over to complete belief in Christ, all in one encounter. The tactics, therefore, must be aggressive and direct, and always aim for conversion in that moment. If the target does not want to be rescued, the attempt is a failure.

For the average Christian, this is frankly a scary proposition. The only kind of person to which this approach appeals is someone who is naturally blunt, extroverted, and fearless. Some people are like this and can be very effective in evangelism. But really, how many people get saved the first time they hear the gospel? And if the approach is “one and done,” and the encounter has been unpleasant, the unbeliever may be less likely to be open to the gospel than before. This model of evangelism, then, has limited value.

Most Christians blanch at the thought of search and rescue evangelism. Such a confrontation is too intense to imagine, and, therefore, better left untried, or left to the experts. As a result, most Christians don’t share their faith on a regular basis.

Search and rescue, however, is not the only model of evangelism and apologetics.

Paul uses the metaphor of planting and watering when he speaks of his partnership with Apollos in building up the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 3:5-9). He recognizes that he and Apollos play a part in the cultivation of gospel teaching, but it is God who produces the fruit. Paul recognizes both God’s sovereignty and His use of secondary means, such as himself and Apollos.

seed plantingWithout a recognition of God’s sovereignty, the seed cultivation model seems untenable. After all, where is the urgency in evangelism if I am only playing a part in God’s rescue of a sinner over time, and not producing the fruit myself right now?

With a belief in God’s sovereignty, however, we come to see that the salvation of a sinner comes at the end of a long process. God has called that sinner without ceasing all his life through creation, which declares God’s glory every day (Ps. 19:1-2), and through a multitude of various contacts with the truth. These may include him seeing Bible verses on a billboard, meeting Christians who cross his path, hearing a radio preacher, holiday visits to a gospel-proclaiming church, reading a gospel tract, existential crises, experiencing joy and beauty, longing for peace and hope, and many more.

While the search and rescue model carries a built-in urgency, its “all or nothing” approach can make Christians immune to any sense of urgency. This is because if every contact with an unbeliever is a do-or-die moment, I will tend to avoid evangelizing simply because of the emotional stress brought on by “urgency overload.” Search and rescue urgency is a wonderful goal for every believer, but it is not realistically sustainable for the average Christian.

The seed cultivation model does carry a sense of urgency, but it is driven by joy, not fear. This urgency arises out of a conviction that God is the one doing a great work of search and rescue in this world and has called his people to be sowers and waterers of the seed of the gospel. We are assured that our little, frail efforts at evangelism and apologetics are empowered by the very Holy Spirit who has the divine ability to transform hearts through regeneration. Our efforts are the secondary means that God uses to bring the gospel message to unbelievers.

In this model, then, we play a real part in the salvation of souls, all the while resting in the confidence that God is the one who brings the fruits of repentance and faith.

This means that whether an unbeliever gets saved or not when I share the gospel, I am helping to cultivate the seed of the implanted knowledge of God in every person by shining the light of the gospel in their hearts. I may be the first to plant the seed or I may be the one who gets to reap the harvest. Either way, the relentless pressure of the search and rescue model is removed, and I can freely and confidently speak as much of the gospel as the Holy Spirit makes the unbeliever’s heart ready to receive. I can rejoice that any part of the gospel that I have the ability to proclaim will continue to bring that unbeliever to a saving knowledge of Christ.

If the average Christian would see evangelism this way, perhaps more actual evangelizing would take place in churches. And with more Christians than just the extroverts sharing the gospel, perhaps more souls would be saved, and more churches would begin to grow again.

Let me conclude with an example. I was in a coffee shop Wednesday waiting for my son to get a haircut, when I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me. It was one of those glorious opportunities when I didn’t have to coax conversation about spiritual matters out of her. She had a dozen questions about God and the Christian gospel, and we talked for almost an hour in a very natural and relaxed tone. Although she didn’t trust Christ as her Savior, her misunderstandings about so many aspects of the gospel were cleared away. She walked away with a clearer sense of her need for Jesus, and some gospel pleading on her heart. It was an evangelistic victory because the seed of the gospel was watered.

Seed cultivation is always a victory, because it’s all God calls us to do in evangelism.

Apologetics for the Average Christian: Agreeing with Unbelievers

2344769612_YEAH_I_AGREE_answer_1_xlargeMany times in a conversation with an unbeliever a Christian will find himself faced with an apparent no-win situation. The unbeliever may say something like, “I could never believe in a God who arbitrarily lets bad people live and good people die.” Or, “How can you put your faith in a wandering sage who lived 2,000 years ago?” Or, “I can’t believe in a religion that cares more about making sure people don’t have sex outside marriage than about feeding the homeless.” What can you say to such an objection?

One of the best ways to handle an apparent no-win situation is to evaluate the question or statement itself. Do you really believe what they just attributed to you? In response to the questions asked above I would recommend responding with something like, “I don’t believe in a God who does anything arbitrarily either. I believe in a God who is the very source of justice, and who never does wrong.” And, “The Jesus I believe in was not a wandering sage. He was much more than that. Can I tell you about him?” And, “Christianity doesn’t care more about the one than the other. That is a false dichotomy, because the Christian faith considers both to be important.”

In other words, it’s OK to agree with unbelievers when what they reject is distorted, a caricature, or objectionable to biblical Christianity too.

Too many times, however, we are not listening carefully and find ourselves getting frustrated as we try to defend the indefensible.

I am more than happy to agree with the unbeliever that Westboro Baptist Church is evil, or that prosperity preachers are manipulators and exploiters, or that Christians sometimes do weird and wacky things.

I was at an atheists’ gathering not long ago, and the evening began with a litany of bizarre news stories about Christians doing strange things. This was essentially their entire case against Christianity—a coach making his players pray before a game, the Pope saying that all pets go to heaven, and the one-dimensional, stereotypical characters in the movie, God’s Not Dead.

When they were done laughing at the crazy nut jobs in the list, they asked me what I thought (they knew I am a Christian). I surprised them when I said that I thought it was wrong for a coach to make players pray, that I thought the Pope was whacked (and that I did not represent Catholicism), and that I thought God’s Not Dead was a weak and unhelpful movie.

Then I told them that none of those things had anything to do with the truth of the Christian gospel, and would they like to talk about what Christianity was really all about?

They did not.

But what they could no longer do was pat themselves on the back for being “rational” atheists, because I agreed with them on most of their points. This forced them to face the uncomfortable realization that they had not discussed even one good reason for rejecting Christianity. They were slightly embarrassed, and rightly so.

So the next time an unbeliever throws up in your face some distortion of the Christian faith, agree with him that it is bizarre, reprehensible, or just plain stupid, and then share the truth with him. You may leave him speechless. And that can be a seed planted for the gospel.

The Healthy Church Is An Apologetic for the Christian Faith

3_questions_to_ask_when_building_a_racially_diverse_church_484869019The healthy church as an institution of apologetics has the advantage of being an explanation of the gospel by its very presence. The quality of life in a gathering of believers is a startling apologetic to a world that is critical, negative, competitive, and skeptical. Within the larger context of the local church, a broad variety of personal accounts of how dignity has been restored by the gospel and how marriages have been put back together by the grace of God stand in contrast to the apparent distress in the workplace and classroom. Add to this a code of ethics that works and a sense of belonging on the one hand and of purpose on the other.

The end of apologetics is not simply to bolster the credibility of the Christian faith for the believer, but rather to break through the incredulity of the unbeliever. And while there is overwhelming reasonable evidence for the Christian faith, because in the postmodern world reason is suspect and moral and spiritual values have been reduced to relativistic opinions, the existential power of the healthy Christian community is a powerful apologetic (maybe even more influential initially than any intellectual construct we have to offer). It’s as though the truth of the gospel must be existentially perceived–at least initially–rather than rationally grasped.

Ravi Zacharias, Is Your Church Ready? (Zondervan, 2003), 53-54.

Mystery Is a Part of Every Belief System

dsc07622-mystery-hole1The true religion is not that which has no difficulties. We have to swallow mysteries with it. But we have to swallow the same mysteries without it.

G. K. Chesterton

Defending the Christian faith can be difficult at times. There are some questions I can’t answer. This does not shake me, however. I am reminded that I am creaturely, finite and fallen. God is divine, infinite, and holy. He knows what I do not.

And the one who challenges the Christian faith must account for the same mysteries. Disbelieving Christianity does not make the mysteries, enigmas, and paradoxes go away. One of the problems with worldviews besides the Christian one is that they can account for so little. They may have an explanation for how to find peace, but they can’t explain the difference between good and evil. They may have an explanation for how the world came to be, but can’t explain why we should value life over death.

Only the Christian worldview can explain all the major questions of life without contradiction, because only in Christ is all wisdom found.

“…the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3)

Apologetics for the Average Christian: Calling the Bluff

trainThe ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons, but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren’t; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn’t; because miracles do not happen, but they do…because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colors and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn’t, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Chesterton’s quote reminds us of an important apologetics principle–calling the bluff of the challenger. I have found that quite often unbelievers will toss out a challenge to the Christian faith that has no merit, but they are hoping the Christian won’t know better. “The Gospels have been corrupted,” they say. “There are error in the Bible.” “Jesus never claimed to be God.” “Scientists have proven that we all evolved from a single creature.”

Sometimes these statements reveal a blind trust in some authority–a college professor, a best seller by Bart Ehrman, or something they heard from other skeptics. They may not even know that such statements are not true. I flew on a plane once with a man who told me Jesus had sinned. When I asked him when Jesus sinned and where in the Bible it said so, he couldn’t give specifics. I was able to demonstrate that he was mistaken, and it cleared a hurdle for further discussion about the gospel.

It is important that Christians don’t simply accept these bluffs. Such statements can be challenged simply by asking questions like, “What makes you think that?” and “What do you base that on?” You will often find that your conversation partner can’t give any support. He may have just been bluffing, and by calling his bluff you remove one more obstacle to belief.