C.S. Lewis, in the midst of his WWII evangelistic endeavors, warned youth leaders of the need to walk circumspectly when operating on the front lines of apologetic activity:
“That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality — from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help.”
Contemporary apologetics is not without its trials and temptations. The Christian seeking to speak of Christ in the marketplace of ideas, in the public square, will be forced to come face-to-face with his true convictions. The evangelist’s views will be laughed at, and his commitments scorned. Unless the believer is adequately rooted and established in the faith, there will be a temptation to dilute convictions in order to earn credibility. The apologist will be tempted to abdicate a biblical foundation for the sake of establishing some elusive common ground.
A great deal of these sorts of temptations stem from a lack of confidence in the gospel and a misunderstanding of the nature of an apologetic ministry. Many see contemporary evangelism as reactionary and defensive. This notion is too narrow.
Biblical apologetics and public Christianity require both the defense of the gospel, and the intentional and positive assertion of the truth. Christians must defend the gospel against objections, attacks, and misunderstandings. But they must also affirm the gospel with all of its glorious implications for human flourishing.
Preaching and defending the gospel are biblical mandates. This is a calling that should be taken seriously and conducted with biblical fidelity. While there are various methodologies that Christians employ in apologetics, I think there are basic biblical parameters for framing our approach to taking the gospel into the public square. The following are seven imperatives that I deem necessary for biblical apologetics and public Christianity.
#1. PRESENT TRUTH AS KNOWABLE
Christians can easily become intimidated when sharing the gospel with the “intelligentsia.” This should not be so. The believer need not assume a position of weakness when talking with skeptics. The Christian worldview offers much more than many people realize when it comes to describing reality. In fact, an atheistic worldview is actually forced to borrow certain assumptions that flow from a theistic outlook in order to formulate an argument against it.
Consider how we use the basic laws of logic in our everyday conversations. The law of noncontradiction, for example, is regularly used in evaluating truth claims. Something cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same way. But have you ever thought about how a naturalistic framework might account for such a law? How can eternal, mindless, and impersonal matter produce logical laws that guide our thought?
On the other hand, the laws of logic flow naturally from of a worldview that places an eternal, intelligent, and personal creator as the source of all things. This underscores part of a perennial problem for the atheistic outlook. Atheists from previous generations like H.G. Wells, and even contemporary atheistic philosophers like Thomas Nagel, recognize that in philosophical naturalism there is no objective reason to trust our cognitive faculties.
Both Wells and Nagel offered these concerns in print, calling into question the bravado with which people boast of their brainpower for comprehending the world; Wells in an article, “Skepticism of the Instrument,” where instrument refers to the brain, and Nagel in his recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Both men doubt that unguided nature is able to provide a basis for cognitive confidence.
This doubt can be traced back to Charles Darwin himself, who questioned whether or not he could trust his mental thoughts if his brain is merely a product of evolution. He seems to worry that, if nature is all there is, then there could be no certainty that our brain is aimed at truth or that our thoughts are reliable.
Apologists have consistently exploited this worldview weakness. C.S. Lewis claimed that this difficulty is a self-contradiction in naturalism. G.K. Chesterton called this the “thought that stops all thought.”
Though much more can be said about this topic, the apologist must recognize that only Christianity provides a reasonable explanation for reason itself. Even arguments against God are forced to presuppose logical laws that only make sense if God exists. Thus, when the apologist presents the gospel, he should do so with the confidence that it is the power of God unto salvation. The gospel makes sense of the world we live in and provides a foundation for rational discussion. Truth is knowable because, as Francis Schaeffer said, “God is there and he is not silent.”
#2. PRESENT GOD AS SOVEREIGN
We are to present truth as knowable because of the triune God who is sovereign. If we water down our conception of God to make the gospel message more palatable we will find that, in the end, we are no longer doing true evangelism. We merely market a god of our own invention, attempting to woo people in with a hazy image of an impotent deity.
We have to remember that the people with whom we speak actually believe in God, regardless of the labels they employ. The apostle Paul makes this clear in Romans. God has revealed his invisible attributes to all men – his eternal power and his divine nature – so they are without excuse (Rom 1: 19-20). The principal problem for unbelievers is that they, due to the fall, suppress the knowledge of God and worship creation rather than creator.
When we speak with unbelievers, we must keep in mind that they possess an innate knowledge of God’s existence. Understanding humanity’s innate knowledge of God also helps to explain the campaign against religion in our contemporary culture.
Doug Wilson said there are “two fundamental tenets of true atheism. One: there is no God. Two: I hate him.” Peter Hitchens, brother of the late atheistic journalist Christopher Hitchens, describes his personal conversion to Christianity in his book The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith. Peter Hitchens’ conversion illustrates that belief cannot be dismissed as merely cultural. Both he and his brother rejected the faith of their childhood. But why did Peter return, while others have continued in their rage against the God in whom they don’t believe?
Paul’s account in Romans 1 of man’s implicit knowledge of God is telling. Just compare it to Psalm 19, which says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” What Paul writes in Romans 1 is similar, but the differences are significant. “For the wrath of God,” Paul says, “is revealed from heaven.” For the believer, the heavens display the glory of God. For the unbeliever, the heavens reveal the wrath of God.
This knowledge of God brings a sense of judgment and condemnation for the unbeliever. This is a good thing. It’s actually part of the divine design. That’s why the cosmos is our ally in sharing with skeptics. Both physical nature and human nature point us upward. “God’s kindness,” Paul tells us, leads us “to repentance” (Rom 2: 4). The message of the gospel is that our inner sense that there is a God, and the troubling sense that we have offended him, are both true. And it is to this point that we should direct our witness.
Don’t dilute God in order to make him more marketable. Don’t propagate idolatry. Present the sovereign God of the Bible as the key to understanding the human narrative.
#3. PRESENT CHRIST AS SAVIOR
The human epic is stained by guilt, shame and regret. Even if some deny the reality of God, they cannot functionally deny the existence of guilt. People can try to discard it as a social construct, or repress it through medication, but there is a proven track record that emancipation from guilt cannot be obtained through human efforts.
When we share the gospel with skeptics, we speak to their innate knowledge of God and their deep understanding of their moral guilt. But we must remember that guilt is only a symptom. Sin and separation from God are the true problems. And grace is the only antidote. This is why evangelism with skeptics should begin and end with a simple presentation of the gospel, and this is why the Christian apologist need not water down the gospel in order to gain a hearing. Why concede the only truth powerful enough to change hearts?
This doesn’t mean the apologist should avoid responding to questions or offering arguments that force the atheist to reconsider his or her own objections. But it does mean that the apologist can never improve on Jesus’ assertion, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). For all of your logic and all of your evidences, never abdicate your responsibility to share the good news. Our arguments cannot, in and of themselves, save anyone. Only Jesus can.
4. PRESENT SCRIPTURE AS AUTHORITATIVE
I remember my good friend Mark’s quote in our senior yearbook as if it were published yesterday. Though we attended a public school, he didn’t shy away from sharing his beliefs. Under his senior picture he placed this verse, “The grass withers and the flower fades but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40: 8).
I’m not even sure where I’ve stored my senior yearbook, but one thing is certain: God’s Word will still remain long after my high school memorabilia is gone.
This essay that you’re reading will quickly be forgotten. All of the books you own will eventually deteriorate. But God’s Word will last beyond the end of time. And, not only is it lasting, it is sharper than a two-edged sword (Heb 4: 12). So, as you share with skeptics, don’t relegate Scripture to obscurity or even to peer status among other sources. It will outlive your arguments, resources, and evidences. Don’t neglect, deny, or seek to alter it.
You are not God’s editor. You’re more like a publicist. God is not waiting for your revisions. He’s already gone to press.
This is not to say that every argument must be a sermon or a Bible commentary. But you should not compromise the trustworthiness of the Bible in word or attitude in order to placate a skeptic’s objections. As you evangelize, you must consider where your authority is found.
If you’re like most, you likely came to faith by someone opening their Bible and sharing a simple presentation of the gospel. Don’t doubt that the gospel’s power, on the authority of God’s revelation, can do the same for those to whom you minister.
5. PRESENT MAN AS DEPRAVED
Mankind is not morally neutral. When you share the gospel, you don’t speak to someone who is devoid of worldview commitments. You don’t witness in a spiritual vacuum.
The Bible makes this abundantly clear. Consider Psalm 10, where the wicked says in verse five, “There is no God,” and later in verse eleven, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.” There is a rejection of God’s existence, then, in the same breath, a fear of God’s judgment. This illustrates that one’s inner knowledge of God cannot be dismissed by merely proclaiming that he doesn’t exist. This cognitive dissonance is as old as the Garden of Eden.
The biblical account of origins takes a tragic turn in the third chapter of Genesis. The earthly utopia of the first two chapters is merely a speed bump on the road to redemption. The rest of the biblical narrative unfolds God’s plot to restore a relationship with fallen man. The biblical storyline makes no sense without an understanding of the fall. And neither will your apologetics.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking neutrality is a viable option for the unbeliever. Everyone brings a set of biases against belief in God (see Ps 10). You will encounter resistance and opposition, and this is to be expected. Stand on the Word of God and trust the gospel as the central answer for man’s ultimate questions.
#6. PRESENT CONVERSION AS NECESSARY
Nearly everyone I’ve known who is active in apologetic work deeply understands the necessity of the Spirit to bring about conversion. I’ve never met an apologist who sincerely believed his arguments could, in and of themselves, change someone’s heart. I have, however, met many who pray fervently that God will use their meager attempts to help remove some of the intellectual obstacles. But they also pray with equal passion for the Spirit to bring about conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel.
Sharing the gospel with skeptics is the task of shining the light of the gospel into the darkness of Satan’s temporal domain. If you do it in your own power, you will fail. Like the apostle Paul, we should pray for our audience, that the eyes of their hearts might be enlightened so they might understand the truthfulness and riches of the gospel (Eph 1: 18). Without the work of the Spirit, all of our work is in vain.
#7. PRESENT YOURSELF AS HUMBLE
There is nothing worse than an arrogant or angry apologist, or an unnecessarily edgy evangelist. I don’t care how right he or she might be; I can’t stomach to watch it. The condescension is just too much.
Superior attitudes should be remedied by taking seriously the most quoted verse in all of the Bible regarding our defense of the faith, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3: 15). We are to present the reasons for our hope within a framework of humility.
As we present truth from a Christian basis, we point others to Jesus, the truth incarnate. When Christ is Lord, and when we are humble, then we have found our sweet spot for doing evangelism with skeptics. When we understand the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Bible, and the necessity of the Spirit because of the fallenness of humanity, then we are well on our way to a Christ-exalting and God-glorifying approach to evangelism with atheists and agnostics.
This is an adaptation of a chapter I wrote in the book, “A Guide to Evangelism” SBTS Press: 2013.