“But, what if the person asks me a question I can’t answer? How do I know where to go with the conversation? What if my mind goes blank?”
The woman who asked these questions had just sat through one of my weekend conferences, and yet felt at a loss as she contemplated sharing the truth of the gospel with her friends and co-workers in the coming week.
Her predicament is a common one. We can learn lots of things about apologetics, feel very confident in the middle of an apologetics conference, and yet seemingly forget everything we have learned the moment we come face-to-face with real people.
Part of the answer is to find reassurance that we know more than we think we do if we have been disciple under sound preaching in our local church, or if we have spent time studying how to give an answer. Very few people have the ability to spontaneously speak on any topic related to belief, unbelief, religion, and the like. Most of us need an occasion or a conversation to jog our memory of what we know.
This is where we need the reminders that Jesus gave his disciples before he ascended to the Father. What reminders?
- We have the Spirit of truth living in us (John 14:17)
- The Spirit brings to mind what we have previously learned (John 14:26)
- The Spirit will declare the truth to us (John 16:13-15)
- All authority in heaven and earth belongs to Jesus (Matt. 28:18)
- Jesus is with us at all times (Matt. 28:20)
We need to remember that the Holy Spirit who dwells in believers is the one who will bring to mind what we have forgotten in our short-term memory. The Spirit is the one who will give us words to say when we don’t know on our own. While we should prepare to engage all manners of unbelief, we can never remember everything, nor can we always be knowledgeable about every belief system.
Once we establish the Holy Spirit as the foundation for our apologetic, we can begin to talk about specific tactics that can be used to expose the unbeliever’s presuppositions and worldview. These strategies provide us with multiple ways to challenge unbelief and present the truth of the gospel. When to use which one is entirely dependent on the nature of the encounter with the unbeliever, the extent of the Christian’s knowledge and ability to recognize contradictions and irrationality, and the interest or antagonism of the unbeliever. These tactics can be used by the average Christian to make progress in a gospel conversation with any unbeliever she may encounter.
First, look for erroneous ideas. Erroneous ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes a person will quote a statistic that you don’t know whether is true or not. Other times someone may make an argument against God using theoretical physics or French philosophy. They may bring up a passage of Scripture that they find objectionable, when you have never studied that passage or heard a good explanation of it. The truth is you can never be so well versed in every area of human inquiry that you will have a specific answer for all the objections that get thrown at you in an apologetic encounter.
When unbelievers include “facts” in their argument that are new or unfamiliar to you, don’t panic. In reality, you don’t know whether these “facts” are really true or not, and if they are real facts, they may be taken out of context or misinterpreted. The Christian must automatically challenge any “fact” used to supposedly discredit the truth of the gospel.
Believers need to be reminded that all wisdom rests in Christ and his gospel, so whatever “facts” are wielded against Christianity are misused or mistaken. The Christian must start with the basic presupposition that this is God’s world and everything in it declares his glory (Psalm 19:1-2) and declares it so clearly that unbelievers are without excuse in God’s sight. So, although I may not know how to answer the objection raised, I know that there is an answer.
So, what should we do if someone argues an idea with which we are unfamiliar or unsure? As we learned in earlier lessons, we should challenge the “fact.” We can say something like:
- I’ve never heard that before, but it doesn’t seem right to me. What is the source for your information?
- I don’t know anything about that topic (or subject, issue, etc.). How exactly does that, if it is true, discredit the Christian faith?
- I think what you are saying is inaccurate or just plain wrong. I don’t have proof or a strong argument right now, but I wouldn’t base my unbelief on that if I were you. I will find details or arguments and get back to you.
- I am skeptical of that “fact.” That seems pretty far-fetched or contradicts what we know about real life. Maybe you ought to be more skeptical of your sources than you are.”
These may seem to be direct or even blunt responses, but when we are dealing with ignorance or willful rejection of the truth, sometimes we need to be somewhat forceful with the truth. We dare not let mistaken or erroneous ideas go unchallenged in a discussion, lest we undermine further conversation. For example, if I don’t correct mistaken notions about what the Bible is and how it was written and preserved, I undermine my appeal to the Scriptures later because I will have given the impression that I can’t answer challenges to my primary authority.
Second, look for logical fallacies. To be rational we must be logical. Logic keeps us from descending into irrationality. For example, everyone can recognize the irrationality of the following statement. “The sun rises in the east; therefore, you should buy me a new car today.” The second statement does not logically follow from the first, and the first provides no justification for the second. Logic means that we seek to provide reasons for the beliefs we hold. If our beliefs are not based on sound reasons, then we ought to find sound reasons on which to base them, or conversely, abandon those beliefs.
For the Christian, many of our beliefs are grounded in the revelation of God in his Word. The fact that the Bible says something is justification enough for us to believe it, because of our previous beliefs in its authority, reliability, and self-attestation as God’s revelation. We should always seek to believe only what we have good reasons to believe. That eliminates beliefs based on conspiracy theories, wishful thinking, fear, hatred, and a host of other faulty foundations. We dare not commit logical fallacies ourselves if we are going to critique the fallacies of those who reject the truth of the Christian faith.
Unbelievers often commit logical fallacies in their arguments against the gospel. One common fallacy is the disconnect between the evolutionary, materialist view of life and the supposed obligation to be good and love others. Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov summarizes it this way: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.”Clearly the first claim in no way logically results in the second.
In the next post we will continue to look at strategies for effective apologetic encounters.
Quoted in Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 596.