Sorry -some worked examples in apologetics

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The questions we want to ask…and answer

If God exists, why doesn’t he show up and prove it?  If the Gospel is true, why is the church so full of hypocrites and killjoys?  If God is love, then why doesn’t he stop all the suffering in the world?  Can I really trust the Bible to be true?  Any Christian who has tried to tell someone else about their faith is likely to have heard at least one of these questions and objections.  So how do we respond?

Earlier, we said that belief in the God who clearly reveals truth about Himself, Us and the World around us will shape our approach to Apologetics.  Apologetics is the art or science of arguing a case in order to defend your position and challenge your opponent’s point of view.  In other words, it’s about being able to “give a reason (apology) for the hope that you have.”

We have argued for an approach to apologetics called “Presupposition Apologetics.”  We work from the foundational belief (presupposition) that to know truth, we need God’s revelation as supremely found in Jesus Christ and from that basis, we want to challenge the presuppositions of unbelievers by arguing that only by making the revelation of Jesus Christ their foundational basis of truth can they make sense of the World around them.

This means that whenever we deal with an objection or question, we will want to start with Jesus.  Why do we do that?  Well, imagine that you have been asked that question “How do you know God exists?”  There are a number of ways that you could answer the question and several philosophical proofs that you could offer.  For example, you could invite them to look at the World around them, its beauty and order and from there, go on to argue that there must be a designer behind this order.

There are two problems with this.  First of all, by doing this, I am assuming that we can use our own human reason to discover the truth about God and the universe, but we have already identified the folly of relying on human reason in an earlier post.

Secondly, this still leaves me a long way from where I want to be.  I really want to be talking about Jesus and the Cross, but the conversation is circling around philosophy and science.  How do I get from where I am to where I want to be?  For me, the light went on at an evangelism workshop led by Paul Williams, vicar of Christchurch Fulwood in Sheffield.[1]  Paul said “Why not just go straight to Jesus?”

This reflects our own presuppositions, namely:

The necessity of Revelation – we believe that we can only know truth because God reveals it to us through Scripture

The centrality of Jesus – we believe that the key thing is a relationship with Jesus

Not only that, but people love a good story and the true stories about Jesus and the stories (or parables that he told) are vivid, down to earth and engaging.   So here are some worked examples of how we might do this.[2] 

Jesus and the proof of God’s existence

Question:            How do I know that God exists?

Response:           What kind of proof would you be looking for?

Answer :              He would need to actually show up and do something in front of my eyes!

At this point, I want to offer them a positive presupposition.  I want to introduce them to Jesus.  So I will tell them about the one who told the wind and waves to be silent.  The one who has control over the elements is God himself showing up and doing something. From here, I’m able to take them to the further truth that this God revealed in Jesus also has control over life and death and that we see this in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Now, this will of course lead to another question or objection.  Can I trust the account?  Is it just a made up story? We will want to follow this up.  I would acknowledge the question right at the start and promise that we will have time to test the reliability of Scripture in our conversation(s). However, the issue we are coming to here is this:

His/her presuppositions are going to cause him to struggle to accept the evidence demanded here.  Acknowledge that with respect, but note then that this is the very problem with his requirement. 

  1. He is really saying that only if something happens to him will he believe – he isn’t alone in that: in fact, many people at Jesus’s time still rejected him and the Gospels honestly record this (itself part of the evidence for their reliability)
  • So even if he did see for himself, would he believe?  This is the problem with empiricism –can I really trust my own eyes?   Can I really be sure that a causes b? (Note: a famous Empiricist, Hume, argued that you cannot prove a causal link between two things: all you can do is observe that they are related). 
  • When I insist on seeing the evidence in front of my eyes, am I being consistent?  Here we can talk about the things we accept on the basis of credible reports.  We accept historical accounts, reports of events that we were not present at, the claims of doctors that medical therapy will cure us etc.

In fact, what we often find when talking about Biblical miracles is that a wrong standard of proof is set.  In Science, something is proven when it has been observed and repeated.  That’s good news for those of us who rely on prescription medicine.  But history does not work like that.  Some events are once in a lifetime.  Imagine trying to tell someone in 20 years’ time that a little known bottom tier football team beat three of the top teams in the country and made it to a Wembley Cup final, less than a year after nearly going out of the league and out of business altogether.  Well, it all sounds rather made up doesn’t it? It’s the sort of story you get in a boy’s football comic. Except this happened to the team I support, Bradford City, who beat Wigan, Aston Villa and Arsenal, all Premier League Teams at the time, on the way to the League Cup Final in 2013.  Sadly, they didn’t complete the fairy tale by winning the cup! 

Now, we won’t be able to repeat the experiment in 20 years’ time.  History doesn’t repeat itself.  In fact, belief in history repeating itself is referred to as historicism and is considered bad history.  However, there will be the reports of eyewitnesses faithfully passed on.

Which takes us to the next question: is Scripture a trustworthy authority and, if so, what sort of authority?

The follow up question – Can I trust Scripture?

We’ve argued for the existence of God based on what the Bible says about Jesus.  Yet, with the Bible, we have a 2000 year old book (parts of it much older than that).  How do we know that it is telling the truth? Isn’t it biased propaganda? Weren’t the people who wrote it ignorant fishermen who were used to believing in myths and fairy tales in the absence of accurate scientific explanations? Even if they were telling the truth, what’s to say that the Bible hasn’t been corrupted and changed along the way?

The temptation at this stage is to go straight for evidential arguments to try and prove that the Bible conforms to science and to dig out charts that show the number of New Testament manuscripts compared to other ancient documents.  Such arguments have their place, but remember that we are insisting that truth is based on God’s revelation, not on our reason. So we still want to stick with Jesus here.  What claims does he make about Scripture and what claims does Scripture make about itself? 

In other words, we are going to say that you can trust the Bible because Jesus trusted it and claimed that it was authoritative and that the Bible itself claims to be God’s authoritative and inspired word (2 Timothy 3:16).  Now that sounds very much like a circular argument.

However, here’s the thing.  In the end, there has to be a final authority, something or someone that we rely upon to decide what is true and reliable.  Here are the options:

  1. I can rely on someone or something else and trust them to be authoritative.
  2. I can rely on myself.  I and I only will decide what is true and what is false.

In the first scenario, we tend to rely on the words of others, our parents, teachers, respected scientists, politicians (perhaps), celebrities (sadly so many people do on the big questions of identity and self worth).  Of course, I expect there to be a track record there.  I don’t just take the word of someone who proves to be wrong nine times out of ten: trust grows, but at some point, there is a decision to rely on what they say. 

In the second scenario, I am essentially saying that I cannot rely on what others say.  I will only believe what I can see or reason for myself.  As we have seen before, this is about the desire to be autonomous.  It’s what rationalism and empiricism are all about.  We have also seen the futility of this.  We each end up believing our own truth (pluralism) or discovering that there are so many important things that we just cannot know for certain. 

The point is this.  In each case, we have chosen to accept someone as an authority and, at some point, we take their word as truth because they say so.[3]

Now, when it comes to the Bible, we see two important things.  First of all, Jesus said that not even the smallest letter would be wiped out from Scripture.  He relied on it completely.  He trusted it right down to the minutest detail.  Secondly, as we have seen before, the Bible claims to be true, reliable and sufficient.

On this basis, we want to invite our questioner to start trusting the Bible’s claims about itself and from there on about God, us and the World.  Now, this is going to be a growing trust as they begin to see that the Bible is good, is reliable, is true.  As they go along, here are four questions that they might want to keep thinking about.[4]

  1. Does what I read make sense of the World I know?  In other words, does it make sense of what we know about history and society?
  2. Does what I read make sense of the ‘me’ that I know?  In other words, does it resonate with my experience of life?
  3. Does what I read demonstrate that it is internally coherent?  In other words, do the different parts of it agree or are there contradictions?
  4. Is what I read liveable?  Could I seriously put it into practice?

Note first of all the need for caution here.  As we raise these questions, we are recognising that, because of the Fall, human reason is corrupted and that the human heart is deceitful.  We are not simply saying “Do these things ring true to your fallen mind?”  We are saying them in the context of the work of the Holy Spirit to convict people of truth.

Secondly, this means seriously brushing up on the evidence and taking time to know, for example, how different Christians answer the question of origins.  It will also mean that we have taken time to search out the alleged controversies in the Bible and to have worked on these texts ourselves to understand why they are not contradictory.  I am not attracted to the idea that we say to someone “Can you name any contradictions?” in the hope that they will say “no” and we can demonstrate that this is just hearsay.  Even if it is just something they’ve heard second hand, we still want to deal with the real concern here.  That may even mean saying “well I’m aware of a couple of places where people have thought there was a contradiction and it turned out that this wasn’t the case.  Can we look at one of those examples?”

Apologetics –the start of a conversation

Now, at this point, you may be thinking “We’ve only started to scratch the surface and we’ve not answered these questions to my own satisfaction yet.”  There’s a lot more that we could explore in each case, but at this stage, I just want to get the ball rolling and start us thinking about these things.

This also helps us to manage our expectations.  It is going to be a rare situation where you respond to a person’s question in ten minutes and they are satisfied, exclaiming in response “Now I believe.”  Rather, there’s going to be an ongoing conversation, more questions and sub questions below the ones already asked to help clarify thinking.

The point is this: you have started the conversation.  Better still, this is not now a mere conversation between you and them.  This is a conversation where they are starting to listen to what God says.  It will be the work of the Holy Spirit as he speaks through Scripture to bring about a change in their heart and mind (i.e. repentance).

[1] Paul models this in his book co-authored with Barry Cooper “If you could ask God one question”.

[2] This is just for starters. If you want to see these questions handled in greater depth in a winsome and persuasive manner, then have a look at Williams & Cooper, If You Could Ask God One Question and Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York. Dutton, 2008).

[3] For more on the circular argument issue see John M Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R Pulbishing, 1994), 9-14.

[4]C.f. Gavin J McGrath, A Confident Life in an age of change (Leicester. IVP,1995), 86.

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