Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apologetics & Gospel [Jay]

“Where is the gospel in all of this?” That question comes up as I speak to people about the mission of LTI. While teaching and equipping others to defend their pro-life positions with rational arguments and to better understand their Christian worldview, is there room left to declare the saving grace of Jesus Christ? Are we focusing on social issues while failing to lead sinners to salvation? After all, if we convince people to be pro-life or help them to understand how to evaluate competing worldviews but do not give them the gospel we are likely to have smarter people with correct social views that are still headed for eternal separation from God. We have fed their minds to the detriment of their eternal souls.

I ask a question in return. Why can't apologetics serve the gospel? The desire to see it as “do one or the other” seems flawed to begin with and demonstrates a radical misunderstanding of the motivations of many of the finest Christians I have ever met. These men and women tirelessly study, write, teach, and speak to deliver the gospel to people who are otherwise closed to the message of Jesus Christ. Some people will neither hear nor consider the gospel because they believe that they must choose between being religious and being intelligent, to believe things either on blind faith or through trusting science and history. They MUST either abandon reason to embrace Christianity or abandon Christianity to salvage a place at the table of moderns. I know because I used to be one of them.

Studies by Barna (see here) and Lifeway Research (see here) indicate that between 60% to 70% of all young adults entering college as Christians move away from their faith. Though many begin to gravitate back as they mature there is a large enough group still absent from our churches and disconnected from their former beliefs to demand our urgent attention. They are not being transformed by their faith in any lasting and enduring way in their youth and appear to struggle when doubt and a new environment calls into question previously accepted beliefs. (See also here and here)

My friend's brother declared his independence from the faith of his family shortly after leaving home for college. Though he is unusually bright, his objections weren't rooted in profound questions of philosophical or theological nuance. He simply did not like the idea that his beliefs meant that his college friends would go to hell if they did not accept Christ. They were good people and he felt that if Christianity demanded that they be more than that to be alright then he didn't like it. He has since dabbled in an eclectic mash of religious and agnostic beliefs trying out ideas as if they were varieties of chocolates. He seems to proceed from the position that none of them are really “true” so whichever makes you feel good go with it. In his view, religions are not true or false in the same way that saying water freezes at 0 degrees celsius is true or saying Stalin was a brutal dictator is true. Religious claims have a different standard of evaluation more akin to preference than truth.

How could such a gifted young mind with good Christian parents be derailed by this nonsense? This is not some deep existential crisis where he needed to dive into the most profound thinkers in philosophical history to help him sort out his convictions. This is a case of an otherwise intelligent young man falling prey to sloppy thinking. His faith was never more than a series of abstract beliefs and when those abstractions interfered with his life or brought unwanted consequences he jumped ship for an easier abstraction. He is not alone. How do we address this?

While talking to a group of high schoolers about the Christian worldview using Kenneth Sample's book A World of Difference, one of the students raised her hand and asked me how Christianity answers the verification test. I asked her, “What is the central claim of our faith that all other claims are built upon?” She sat silently. I opened the question up to the rest of the class. “Everyone, what was the central claim that the early church preached as evidence that all of the Christian claims can be trusted? What event is so central to our faith that the apostle Paul tells us if it did not happen we are all of us fools to be pitied?”

After a few awkward guesses we opened the bible to 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 and read one of the earliest written expressions of the Christian faith. I asked them again and all of them said, “The resurrection of Jesus.” How does the resurrection fare on the verification test? Does Paul ask us to blindly trust him and what he is saying about Jesus rising from the grave and defeating death? No.

In fact the students all saw that Paul encouraged readers to seek out any of the more than 500 witnesses that could testify to the truth of the resurrection of Jesus through eyewitness accounts of seeing a living Jesus after he was crucified and buried. There is powerful historical evidence in support of the resurrection of Jesus being the best explanation for the series of widely accepted events that happened at the birth of Christianity including multiple independent eyewitness accounts of Jesus being alive. This evidence tells us that our belief in the risen Lord is rational and stands up very well to the verification test. I then asked them how this compares to Buddha's enlightenment or Mohammed's visions. How easily can we verify the independent spiritual experiences of individuals? How does evidence of the resurrection answer lazy so-called intellectuals that challenge whether or not Jesus was a real man or the dismissive academic that sees the resurrection as a myth or a lie?

This apologetics class led a group of high school students to a better understanding of the central teaching of the Christian message, a risen Lord. They saw that belief in the good news of the Gospel is not a leap of blind faith that requires them to abandon reason and heard that the claim,“Jesus Christ is risen” is rooted in history. They are learning that these beliefs are grounded in sound philosophy as well. Through this, they understand that life is valuable because we are created in the image of God and that the value of human life is also philosophically sound and defensible. They learn that saying “we should not kill other human beings” is not merely a religious statement but a moral truth that applies to us all.

If my friend's brother understood these basic concepts before encountering people he liked that needed a relationship with Christ would it have properly served as motivation to share the hope that was within him? He abandoned his beliefs for no good reason. He did not discover flaws in his views that could not hold in the light of some extraordinary new evidence. He decided that the application of his beliefs created certain realities that made him uncomfortable. His inherited ideas of truth excluded others and his response was not to examine those ideas but to look for an easier truth. Too many of our young people are following this same path. The college freshmen from last year's worldview class could tell him what they learned early in our studies. Truth excludes by nature. The proper test is not whether a belief excludes others with particular claims but whether that belief and those claims are rational and a better fit with what we know than other options.

At LTI, we explicitly share the forgiveness of Christ everywhere we go in order to reach out to both men and women that are suffering from the pain of a past abortion or past abortion experiences. But that does not mean that the gospel is otherwise hidden or neglected. We teach what we teach so that we may bring the gospel to people who are not open to hearing it. The arguments lead to questions and conclusions that will ultimately point our students and our audience back to the source of all reason, morals, and value. And that is good news.


  1. Your post seems to make an argument for apologetics to help ground those of faith, not on how the pro-life movement advances the gospel.

    The pro-life movement as I understand first and foremost wants to save babies from being murdered - it seeks to eliminate an injustice to promote common grace. In fact, your methodology by being deliberately rooted in a common moral code that has already been accepted, seeks to apply logical deductions to show that abortion is immoral. By your pro-life logic (which is very strong, sound and persuasive) is true even in a deistic worldview, perhaps even in an atheistic worldview if you hold to the intrinsic value of a human being as axiomatic.

    But just doing pro-life is not spreading the gospel. Teaching kids the logic behind pro-life tells them that Christians engaging in pro-life have more to say than "the Bible tells me it is wrong." But as you show in your example, ultimately, Christianity is not rejected for intellectual reasons but moral pre-suppositions (i.e., my friends are not bad and will not go to hell - which really masks the person's own conviction of their moral goodness).

    Apologetics is definitely a valuable tool for maturing the believer and for clearing the rubble that blocks the non-believer from taking Christianity seriously. But the central message of the Gospel does need to be introduced - the sinful and deceitfulness of our hearts and the impending judgment from a just God.

    I don't think I disagree with what you've stated, I think what you stated doesn't hit at the core of the question. What I'd like you to answer though is a related thorny question (if you hold to the salvation of babies):
    - If babies are heaven bound and we have over 80,000 people who've never heard the gospel even once (who have never heard the name Christ) then why not let abortion be and focus on the lost?

  2. kpolo,

    Thanks for the comment. I will see if I can respond to some of your points, but I am in a hurry so if I miss something I will come back and look at it again later.

    1 - One of my points is that people grounded in faith more effectively advance the gospel so I don't see how your first observation, even if granted as you worded it, undermines that point.

    2 - The pro-life movement is distinguishable from the more limited role of apologetics in pro-life work, the mission of LTI and even more so of the limited participation of Jay Watts in that mission. A broad definition of the pro-life movement is not problematic for me then because I never claimed to define how the greater movement served the gospel. Merely that the more limited role of apologetics, of LTI in general and Jay Watts more specifically can be in service of the gospel as it serves a role in a greater movement to stop abortion.

    3 - I am not sure I am reading you clearly on your comment about the gospel not needing to be introduced. If you mean that it is not necessary to explicitly offer the fallen nature of man and need of redemption when presenting apologetics then of course I agree with you. Just as I agree that "just doing pro-life is not spreading the gospel." I never said it was. Of course I must say I am not sure what you mean by "doing pro-life." I have not seen this as a monolithic enterprise and people seem to be serving the greater movement doing all sorts of diverse things. Certainly the women that I meet that work in post abortion counseling rely heavily on the gospel explicitly as do many pregnancy centers. The pro-life legislator less so by the nature of his work. The LTI mission is focused on training people to defend their view with an emphasis on young people as they are most likely to either get abortions or to have friends that will get an abortion. Our material can be used by all sorts of people including those who reject Christ or an immanent Creator. Just as the Kalam Cosmological Argument or the Teleological Argument can impact Anthony Flew without compelling him to become a Christian. But when Dr. Craig is invited into a university to debate on the existence of God and he has finished presenting his apologetic arguments he almost always closes with his personal testimony of how he came into a relationship with Jesus Christ. He presents the gospel. So the apologetics opened the door for him to come in, offer philosophical arguments, and then offer grace. Knowing Bill, I would say that his motivations are multi faceted in his academic work but it is driven by a heart that loves God and wants to see others come to God. I would say the same thing about Scott Klusendorf. In this respect I would say that their apologetic efforts serve the gospel even when the literal transmission of the gospel message is not their immediate task.

    If you mean that the gospel does not need to be introduced period, then I am not sure what you mean and so cannot comment.

    4 -As I was answering specific questions put to me and then had the opportunity to ask the questioner if I had sufficiently addressed their concerns and they said "yes," I would say that though I may not have covered what you wanted me to cover I apparently addressed the core of their concerns.

    I will get to your last point at a later date.

    God bless,

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