Tactics: the worst mistake a Christian can make when doing apologetics

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

So, this is just an advice post for doing apologetics.

Here are three situations I’ve run into while doing apologetics in the last month.

First situation. I was talking with a lady who is an atheist. I had a copy of “God’s Crime Scene” in my hand, and she asked me about it. I told her that it was a book written by the guy who solved the homicide case that I asked her to watch on Dateline. She remembered – it was the two-hour special on the woman who was killed with a garrotte. She pointed at the book and said “what’s in it?” I said, it has 8 pieces of evidence that fit better with a theistic worldview than with an atheistic one, and some of them scientific. Her reply to me was – literally – “which denomination do you want me to join?”

Second situation. I was talking with a friend of mine who teaches in a Catholic school. She was telling that she got the opportunity to talk to her students about God, and found out that some of them were not even theists, and many of them had questions. So she asked them for questions and got a list. The list included many hard cases, like “what about the Bible and slavery” and “why do Christians oppose gay marriage?” and so on.

Third situation. Talking to a grad student about God’s existence. I’m laying out my scientific arguments for her, holding up the peer-reviewed papers for each discovery. I get to the Doug Axe paper on protein folding probabilities, and she holds up her hand. One question: “Am I going to Hell?”

So think about those three situations. In each case, the opponent is trying to reject Christianity by jumping way, way ahead to the very end of the process. When you do Christian apologetics, you do not take the bait and jump to the end of the process dealing with nitty gritty details until you have made your case for the core of the Christian worldview using your strongest evidence. Let me explain.

So, your strongest evidence as a Christian are the scientific arguments, along with the moral argument. Those would include (for starters) the following:

  1. kalam cosmological argument
  2. cosmic fine-tuning
  3. galactic and stellar habitability
  4. origin of life / DNA
  5. molecular machines / irreducible complexity
  6. the moral argument

The problem I am seeing today is that atheists are rejecting discussions about evidence because they think that all we are interested in is getting them to become Christians. Well, yes. I want you to become a Christian. But I know perfectly well what that entails – it entails a change of life priorities. Both of the women I spoke to are living with their boyfriends, and the kids in the Catholic school just want to have fun. None of them wants to believe in a God who will require self-denial, self-control, and self-sacrifice. Nobody wants God to be in that leader position in their lives. Christianity is 100% reversed from today’s me-first, fun-seeking, thrill-seeking, fear-of-missing-out travel spirit of the age.

So, how to answer all these late-game questions? The answer is simple. You don’t answer any late-game questions until the person you are talking with accounts for the widely-accepted data in your list. These are things that have got to be accepted before any discussion about minor issues like one angel vs two angels at the empty tomb can occur. When we discuss all the basic issues where the evidence is the strongest, then we can go on to discuss issues where the evidence is debatable, then finally, in the last bits before the end, we can discuss these other kinds of questions.

How to explain why this process must be followed to the person who asks specific questions about minor issues? Simple. You explain that your goal is not to get them to become a Christian right now. That you want to let them believe anything thing they want. That’s right. They can believe anything they want to believe. As long as what they believe is consistent with the evidence. And what I am going to do is give them the evidence, and then they can believe whatever they want – so long as it’s consistent with the evidence.

So, for example, I’m going to tell them 3 pieces of evidence for a cosmic beginning of the universe: the expanding universe (redshift), the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the light element abundances. That’s mainstream science that shows that the universe came into being out of nothing, a finite time in the past. And I will charge them not to believe in any religion that assumes that the universe has always been here. For example, Mormonism is ruled out, they believe in eternally existing matter. See how that works? Hey, Ms. Atheist. You can believe anything you want. As long as what you believe is consistent with the evidence. 

I think this approach of not letting them rush you to the end at the beginning is important for two reasons. First, we can get our foot in the door to talk about things that are interesting to everyone, in a non-stressed environment. Everyone can talk about evidence comfortably. Second, we show that we hold our beliefs because we are simply letting evidence set boundaries for us on what we are allowed to believe. We can’t believe not-Christianity, because not-Christianity is not consistent with the evidence. And you start with the most well-supported evidence, and eliminate worldviews that are falsified by the most well-supported evidence. Atheism actually gets falsified pretty quickly, because of the scientific evidence.

So, that’s my advice. Had a friend of mine named William try this out about a week ago. It went down like this:

William to me:

This guy I know messaged me and bragged for a while about how easy he can dismantle Christianity. He said: “present the gospel to me as you understand it. I’ll simply ask questions to demonstrate it is not worth your belief.”

WK to William:

First of all, he isn’t allowed to just sit there and poke holes in your case, he has to present a positive case for atheism. Second, don’t discuss Christianity with him at all until you first discuss the evidence for theism – start with the good scientific evidence.

And William wrote this to his friend:

The way I’m wired is that I process all competing theories and go with the best one. By doing a comparative analysis of worldviews I find that Christian theology easily explains the most about the world I find myself living in.

I’m pretty sure that a God of some sort exists because of the scientific evidence for the origin of the universe and the fine tuning in physics. From there I find it quite intuitive that if a God went through the trouble of creating and tuning a universe for life that this God likely has some sort of interest in it and has revealed Himself to humanity in some way.

From there I can look at the major world religions and compare them to see which one explains the past and the present the best. Christianity easily comes out on top.

And then a few days later, I got this from William:

I finally got the agnostic to tell me what he thinks about origin and fine tuning. When I started pointing out that his views were unscientific, he blew a basket, called me dishonest and told me he didn’t want to discuss anything further.

And that’s where you want to be. Cut off all discussions where the challenger tries to jump to the end and get you to debate the very last steps of your case. Present the strongest evidence for your core claims, and get him to account for this evidence within his own worldview. Lead the discussion with public, testable evidence. All warfare depends on picking the terrain, weapons and tactics that allow you to match your strength against your opponent’s weakness.

20 thoughts on “Tactics: the worst mistake a Christian can make when doing apologetics”

  1. I don’t know that jumping to the end is the worst mistake you could make. Probably the worst mistake would be to tell them to just stop doubting and believe. But jumping into the minute details of theology and letting them ignore the evidence for theism in general and Christianity specifically is definitely up there as a bad mistake to make. Talking about the little details is what they want to do because they love to bring up supposed contradictions or the killing of the Canaanites or slavery or something like that instead of dealing with the evidence.

  2. Yes WK … Great article.

    I provided you an example in a PM of this exact scenario and laid out my case almost exactly as you described and while I did touch upon some of the “Christian or Biblical issues” raised.. I steered it back to foundational issues ..

    First I question their beliefs and how it fails to supply “rea”l meaning as it helps to prep the soil to introduce information to supplant their current held beliefs placing them on shaky ground …

    Put them in the position of questioning their worldview rather than them attempting to get you to question yours …

    I then proceed in the order you propose in this article … Kalam, or Leibniz (contingency) or both, to Fine Tuning, then a combination of Moral/Ontological Argument (Maximally Greatest Being discussions will eventually come up during such a discussion) then transition into the Resurrection and Scripture as it is related to trustworthiness…so that we funnel down into the specifics they wish to initially challenge incorrectly thinking they are doing so from some position of strength.

    Often one must cut through the brambles of rabbit trails and steer the conversation back on track which may involve briefly touching on issues they raise but always with the admonition that this is placing the cart before the horse and other matters must be settled first.

      1. I still don’t completely understand the ontological argument. I don’t think it’s one for beginners or somebody who has no real philosophical training or doesn’t understand the terms. It is a good argument, but I think it’s more for advanced conversations. I do like the argument from reasoning though. One I’ve started paying attention to a little more!

  3. Good article. #1 rule for apologetics is that it is for the defense of your faith. It is not an offensive weapon.

    1. When you defend a worldview, you are implicitly making offering offensive arguments against other worldviews. When you present offensive arguments for a worldview, you are implicitly defending it. The two go hand and hand.

  4. https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/assets/FallaciesPosterHigherRes.jpg Understanding logical fallacies helps to keep atheists honest. Atheists make tons of them especially the ‘Burden of proof fallacy.’ Often atheists make negative claims that they are unable to back up with evidence. We cannot accept a new worldview as true until we start to question the presuppositions of our old one. Asking an atheist to provide evidence for their claims (even though they are negative claims) just may get them to think about their own assumptions.

    I think the best sentence in this article was “First of all, he isn’t allowed to just sit there and poke holes in your case, he has to present a positive case for atheism.”

    1. Brian Auten reads them on a couple podcasts (Logical Fallacies, Logical Fallacies II, Fallacy Friday, they’re short, about 3-7min) which make for easy listening. I agree, knowing some of the fallacies can really help, you can spot them everywhere honestly. I think advertising is the worst culprit of all!

    2. When asked to provide evidence for atheism, atheists will usually respond with “You can’t prove a negative!” or something like that. But I recently thought of a good comeback for that one, I think:

      “OK, then given the fact that 95% of humanity down through history have identified with some form of theism; for atheism to be true, every last one of these people would have to be:

      A. Stupid

      B. Lying

      C. Delusional

      or some or all of the above. Every. Single . One.

      Where is your EVIDENCE that 95% of humanity down through history, untold billions of people, are ALL incredibly stupid, barefaced liars, or green-grass crazy, or all three?”

      Given the fact that some of the most brilliant thinkers in history have been theists (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, etc. etc.), I think such a burden of proof is too heavy to bear. Just my two cents worth.

      1. Mark, here is a reply that I crafted to the “You can’t prove a negative” assertion (note, this was in reply to a statement by the FFRF that “there are no gods, angels, devils, heaven or hell”):

        “you can’t prove a negative”

        3 problems with that:

        1. I can prove that even prime numbers larger than 2 do not exist. That is proving a negative.
        2. The statement “you can’t prove a negative” is ITSELF a negative, so I guess you can’t prove it, huh? 
        3. If “you can’t prove a negative,” then why is FFRF asserting a universal negative?!? Is this some sort of blind faith atheism that they are promoting – a religious cult of some sort? I thought that atheists were supposed to be the “rational” ones interested in “evidence?!?”

        Hope that helps!

        1. I think the problem is that the word proof can have different meanings. More often than not in my discussions with atheists they use it in in the same way mathematicians use it. Christians more often use it in reference to a legal case where proof is used for strong evidence that removes reasonable doubt. In that way William Lane Craig has shown that we can make reasonable arguments why we shouldn’t reasonably believe that there is a teapot in orbit around any of the planets in our solar system.

          1. Yes, and that is precisely why I give them two mathematics-style proofs in my reply.

        2. Ha! Good one, and so true. I can prove that my bachelor brother has no wife, or that I don’t have a PhD, or that the Earth only has one Moon and not several. It is quite easy to prove negatives, we do it all the time. Just another fallacious argument from the other side.

  5. It would be great to post some materials or links to the points you address with atheists, ie. Molecular machines, the cosmological argument Etc. , or maybe recommended reading for each topic. Would this be possible?

  6. Christianity and biblical Judaism – as opposed to the overwhelmingly more common Talmudic Judaism – are the most evidence based religions in the world.

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